Is a Microphone a ‘Mic’ or a ‘Mike’?

CC BY-SA 2.0
CC BY-SA 2.0 / CC BY-SA 2.0

If you forget your microphone is on and say something inappropriate do you have a “hot mike” problem or a “hot mic” problem? Do you go to “open mike night” or “open mic night”? When you’ve delivered a devastating comeback do you drop “the mike” or “the mic”?

The early abbreviation for microphone, dating back to 1927, was mike, but over the past 25 or so years mic has been steadily pushing mike out of the microphone scene. And this makes some people very unhappy.

Musician Samuel Bayer has maintained a 12-year, self-described “tirade” about the use of mic to spell the abbreviation of microphone. He is a firm mike proponent, but he has tracked both sides of the argument with fair-minded rigor.

The problem with mic is that it doesn’t follow our usual habits of matching abbreviation spellings to our pronunciations. Mic, like similar words tic, hic, sic, and the abbreviation pic, looks like it should be pronounced “mick.” If we want to pronounce it like "mike," we should adapt the spelling, as we normally do. We have Coke, not COC(a-cola), nuke, not NUC(lear), fave, not FAV(orite), fridge, not (re)FRIG(erator), and for shortenings that would end in ‘ic’ we have bike, not BIC(ycle), and delish, not (DELICious).

There’s an additional problem when it’s used as a verb. When someone is attaching your microphone are they micing you? Are you then miced? No one wants to be covered in mice. Not even the staunchest mic proponents go that far, using miking and miked in those cases, or mic’ing and mic’d. Again, this does not follow our usual habits of abbreviation.

But in 2010 the AP style guide switched over to just this split situation, endorsing mic for the noun while keeping miked for the verb. Ben Zimmer’s New York Times column about the switch explains that despite the adoption of mike by writers in the early days of recording, mic, beginning as a printed label on sound equipment, was embraced by sound engineers in the 60s and then rappers, until it became the new norm.

Dictionaries still give mic and mike as acceptable alternatives, but at the moment Google returns 18 times as many hits for “open mic” as for “open mike.” In 2003 it was only 3 times as many. The writing is on the wall. And it looks like the writing on the mixing board.