Open mic (mike?) night and other abbreviation silliness

Bill Walsh is back. He’s the Washington Post copyeditor who calls himself a copy editor and is now conducting his online chat once a month, apparently. This gives me a chance to comment on his comments on other people’s questions and comments about grammar.

Bill has had two chats since the last time I commented on his comments. The October one stayed put better than the November one, so I’ll look at that one first rather than conflate them.

He started off with “a case study from the world of language change and geekery and peevery”: the term “open mic night.” It’s annoying that the rude put-down for Irish ancestry has become the acceptable abbreviation for something else entirely. Would you ever see a sign announcing “Open ____ night” or “Open ______ night”? Is it just me who thinks this?

Anyway, Bill says the Post’s style for the slang term for “microphone” is “mike.” It is? Hooray for the Post! Here’s how he explains it: “That’s the way nicknames and short-form slang work: You spell them phonetically. You don’t just grab the letters f-r-i-g out of ‘refrigerator,’ because ‘frig’ is pronounced ‘frig.’ It’s a mild curse word; a fridge is a ‘fridge.’ A Bic is a pen; a bike is a ‘bike.’ Bic and sic and hic and Nic [all] rhyme with ‘mick,’ and so should ‘mic.’ ” Exactly.

Tape-recorder designers weren’t looking for a new form of “mike” so much as shortening the word the way they might shorten “Robert” to “Rbt.”—which is not the same as “Bob.” Yet people took “MIC” on those machines as the real short form, and it stuck. The AP Stylebook solidified this in 2010, and now “ ‘open mic night’ appears 12 times as often as ‘open mike night’ ” in the Nexis database, the reverse of the way it was until the 1990s. Ignorance, Bill declares—but as with so much of the way grammar changes, it’s he and I who look like fuddy-duddies rather than the ignorant who look mistaken.

Speaking of short forms or abbreviations, a chatter used the term “WaPo” for the name of the newspaper. Bill said that term made him cringe. I can see that. I once worked with an editor, a Montgomery County native who now lives a few miles from the border, who claimed not to have heard the terms “MoCo” and “MontCo.” At the time I think they were fairly new, but it seemed odd that he wasn’t tuned in enough to have seen them in headlines. Americans like abbreviations, and in the last decade-plus they’ve shoved celebrity names together slangily—“Brangelina,” for example, and “TomKat” and “Kimye.” I can see that, too, but wouldn’t mind if the fad faded out soon.

All grammar geeks cringe at different things, I suppose. Bill may cringe at “WaPo,” but I cringe at something Cosmo—short for Cosmopolitan—magazine has been doing for quite a while. (Not that I’m a regular reader, but in my business one is aware of a great many publications.) Sometime in the 1990s, I think, Cosmo started using “gyno” for “gynecologist” and later “vacay” for “vacation.” Ugh! And then I saw “vayjay,” which eventually I figured out is what a gyno looks into. Double ugh! Cosmo has never been known for either its taste or its sense, but if I hadn’t long since quit as a reader (after coming across the advice that a “girl” should attract a man’s attention by deliberately spilling a drink on herself), that would have done it.

In short (ha): Reader, be careful with abbreviations. The size of the word does not relate to the size of the grammar controversy that may accompany it.

Copyright 2013 Ellen M. Ryan. All rights reserved.

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