Selling Short

When words are truncated, spellings differ

By now, just about everyone knows what an “app” is, and knows it’s short for “application.” The verb form of “app,” which seems inevitable if not already popular, is likely to be “app” as well. (“I’m so totally going to app that game, dude!”)

But it’s not always so simple. You’d think the short form of “perquisite” would be “perq.” But it’s “perk.” Sure, that spelling makes it easier to know how it’s pronounced, but how does that explain the short form of “prerequisite” as “prereq”?

In 1929, the Oxford English Dictionary says, Photoplay magazine used “in sink” to mean “in synchronism.” Ten years later, Reader’s Digest wrote that in a TV screen “that is out of synchronization the image sort of bobs and weaves; it is then ‘out of sync.’” In 1945, a book called Air Words: A Popular Aviation Definitionary defined “synch” as “to synchronize.” Sixteen years, three spellings.

“Sink” soon dropped out of the competition, and “sync” and “synch” were left to battle it out, first in the era of “lip sync(h)” and now in the sense of keeping data up to date in different devices. Most dictionaries list “sync” and “synch” without a preference, although when lips are involved, some suggest it should be “synch.” The New Oxford American Dictionary, which prefers “sync,” also lists “post-synch” as a verb meaning “add a sound recording to (film or video footage) at a later time.” The Associated Press Stylebook prefers “sync,” a decision that The New York Times Manual of Style and Usage acceded to in August this year.

Then there’s the diminutive of “microphone.” Beginning in 1926, the OED says, most people outside the recording industry referred to it as a “mike.” Putting a “mike” on was “miking” someone, who was then “miked.”

In 1973, the OED says, Scientific American was the first publication outside the music industry to use “mic.” Usage of “mic” picked up exponentially after that. Though it’s not proof positive, personal recorders were becoming more popular, and manufacturers were using “mic” to mark where to plug in the microphone, perhaps to save space, leading to more “mics” than “mikes.”

“Mic” and “mike” continue to peacefully coexist, and, as with “sync(h),” many dictionaries say you can do whatever you like. In March this year, however, the AP, which had been in the “whatever” camp, said the industry had a preference to “mic,” and so firmly endorsed that spelling. Well, not so firmly, as it turned out: The verb’s past-tense form is not “miced” or even “mic’ed.” AP refers its users to Webster’s New World College Dictionary, which lists the past tense of “mic” as “miked.” (Actually, that’s under the “mike” entry. But whatever.)

Ben Zimmer wrote in The New York Times Magazine about some of the problems with “mic”—and about objections from copy editors, who are often the canaries in the coal mine about illogical or inconsistent language policies. After all, if copy editors can’t understand the logic of using “mic” as a noun, but “mike” as a verb, and “miking” as a gerund (a verb acting as a noun) what hope is there for everyone else?

Has America ever needed a media watchdog more than now? Help us by joining CJR today.

Merrill Perlman managed copy desks across the newsroom at The New York Times, where she worked for 25 years. Follow her on Twitter at @meperl.