Pronunciation Usage

Rock the mic … or the mike?

Q: Is there a technical name for when a word is not pronounced as written because it’s a shortening of another word? For example, “mic” would normally be pronounced MICK, but it’s actually pronounced MIKE since it’s short for “microphone.”

A: If there’s a word for this, we don’t know what it is. (But never underestimate the English language. There may be a word lurking out there for just this purpose!)

The phenomenon you’re talking about is common when we abbreviate spoken words. For example, the first syllable of “microphone” is pronounced MIKE, so that’s how we say it when we abbreviate the spoken word.

The actual spellings of these abbreviated words are irrelevant when we say them. But when we write them, those spellings may look odd, so some people respell them to reflect the way they sound.

That’s why we sometimes see the short form of “microphone” spelled “mike” instead of “mic.”

Both spellings—“mic” and “mike”—are given in The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (5th ed.) and Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.).

In 2010, the linguist Ben Zimmer wrote columns in the New York Times magazine on July 11 and Aug. 1 about “mic” versus “mike.”

In the first column,  Zimmer wrote that “microphone” is “abbreviated in rap circles as mic, not mike,” but some readers took issue with him, prompting another column on the subject.

The respondents “fell evenly into two camps,” Zimmer wrote in the second column. Some “were unfamiliar with the shortening of microphone as mic,” while others “noted that mic is the prevailing form not just in rap circles but also among recording professionals more generally.”

But the “mike” spellers aren’t unreasonable. As Zimmer pointed out, the short form of “bicycle” is both pronounced and spelled “bike,” not “bic.”

We’ll let him have the microphone for the last word on the subject.

“We do occasionally allow a mismatch between the spelling of an abbreviation and how it looks like it ought to be pronounced,” he wrote. “Vegetable is shortened to veg, and Reginald to Reg, but the final g is not a ‘hard’ one as in peg or leg. So let the musicians and broadcasters have their mic, but as for me, I still like mike.”

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