In my recent column on the expression “rock the mic,” I wrote that “the M.C.’s of early hip-hop took the verb [rock] in a new direction, transforming the microphone (abbreviated in rap circles as mic, not mike) into an emblem of stylish display.” Laurence Reich e-mails regarding mic: “I must confess I have never seen that word before. I’ve only seen mike for that usage.” Ted Estersohn e-mails: “As far as I can tell mic the short form has always been spelled in audio and engineering circles with a ‘c,’ like an abbreviation and not like the boy’s name.”
The respondents on this one fell evenly into two camps: those like Reich who were unfamiliar with the shortening of microphone as mic and those like Estersohn who noted that mic is the prevailing form not just in rap circles but also among recording professionals more generally.
Mike came first, documented from the early days of radio. In the June 1923 issue of The Wireless Age, a photo caption of Samuel L. Rothafel (who was known as Roxy and who was broadcasting concert programs from New York’s Capitol Theater) reads, “When you hear Roxy talk about ‘Mike’ he means the microphone.” This suggests the abbreviation arose as a kind of nickname, playfully anthropomorphizing the microphone as Mike. But by 1926, when the pioneering broadcaster Graham McNamee published his book “You’re on the Air,” mike appeared in lowercase, not as a name. During broadcasts of baseball games, McNamee wrote, “the man at the ‘mike’ watches each play.”
Mic didn’t begin appearing in written works for another few decades, first recorded by the Oxford English Dictionary in Al Berkman’s 1961 “Singers’ Glossary of Show Business Jargon.” Berkman offered both mike and mic as possible clippings of microphone. Since then, mic has grown in popularity among those who work with recording equipment. The preference for mic likely stems from the way the abbreviation is rendered on the equipment itself: a microphone might be labeled “Mic No. 1,” for instance. And if you’re in the market for a microphone preamplifier, you’ll find it written as “mic preamp.”
It makes sense, then, that the early rappers of the South Bronx, intimately familiar with the sound systems that powered their performances, would take to the mic spelling. It also explains why The Associated Press Stylebook earlier this year reversed its advice to abbreviate microphone as mike. As the stylebook’s editors told the American Copy Editors Society in April, the A.P.’s broadcast division was unhappy with mike, and so the entry was revised to recommend mic instead.
Some of the copy editors voiced objections to the A.P.’s amended edict, on the grounds that mic could confuse readers who might be tempted to pronounce it as “mick.” The Washington Post’s Bill Walsh pressed the stylebook editors on the verb form: is a person mic’ed or miked? The A.P. style gurus allowed that the verb could be miked, even if the noun is mic.
The grumbling over mic emerges from its seeming violation of English pronunciation rules. Bicycle is abbreviated as bike, after all, not bic. But we do occasionally allow a mismatch between the spelling of an abbreviation and how it looks like it ought to be pronounced. 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.
Ben Zimmer will answer one reader question every other week.