Hot Mic: An Unwitting Link to a Listening Public

From a Wall Street Journal Word on the Street column by Ben Zimmer headlined “‘Hot Mic’: An Unwitting Link to a Listening Public”:

Linguist and lexicographer Ben Zimmer analyzes the origins of words in the news.

At a White House event on Monday, President Biden called the Fox News correspondent Peter Doocy a “stupid son of a bitch” in response to a question about whether inflation would be a political liability leading up to the midterm elections. News outlets including CNN, NBC News, ABC News and USA Today reported that the president had been caught cursing on a “hot mic.”

Some might quibble with the characterization, since “hot mic moments” typically occur when a person is unaware that a microphone is on. A more canonical example would be a slip-up in 2010, when Mr. Biden, then vice president, was heard telling President Barack Obama that the passage of the Affordable Care Act was “a big f—ing deal.”

When did microphones first get “hot”? The term goes back to the early days of radio broadcasting, at a time when currents running through electrical equipment could generate real heat. The same phenomenon led the electric chair, an instrument of capital punishment, to be colloquially dubbed the “hot seat” or the “hot chair” as early as 1924.

When “hot” was first applied to the microphone, the implication was merely that the current was flowing….“Microphone” was shortened to “mike” as early as 1910, originally in the form “handmike.”

Beginning in 1930, newspapers and magazines around the country shared selections of radio jargon, complete with definitions. In February of that year, the Binghamton Press reported, “Today’s definition of broadcasting studio terms: Hot (or live) mike—A microphone in operation or in readiness to pick up a sound.”

That April, the trade journal Broadcast Advertising explained, “Broadcasting has its own language, a few words of which are quoted here from the glossary that is running serially in the ‘Voice of Columbia.’” The first item given is “‘Hot mike’—A microphone in operation.” And in February 1931, the Daily News of Bangor, Maine, credited this definition to Irving Reis, an engineer at the Columbia Broadcasting System: “Hot Mike—Microphone with current applied,” adding, “A ‘dead mike’ is one that is shut off.”

With the rise of commercial television broadcasting in the 1940s, the “hot mike” expression made the jump to the new medium. A 1945 book called “Television: The Eyes of Tomorrow” included both “hot camera” and “hot mike” in its glossary, with the explanation, “A term meaning the apparatus is energized.”

By the early 1960s, the “mic” spelling began to emerge as an alternate form of “mike,” likely influenced by the way that “microphone” was abbreviated as “MIC” on recording equipment. “Hot mic” made an appearance by the end of the decade, in the July 1969 issue of db, a magazine for sound engineers. A writer commenting on performers lip-syncing on television observed, “Whether or not they actually sing at this time is irrelevant, since there is not a hot mic around to investigate the issue.”

As the term is now defined by Oxford Dictionaries, a “hot mic” or “hot mike” is “a microphone that is turned on, in particular one that amplifies or broadcasts a spoken remark that is intended to be private.” That accidental amplification has been the bane of politicians, especially when a bit of obscenity slips through—such as when George W. Bush on the campaign trail in 2000 was caught telling his running mate, Dick Cheney, that New York Times reporter Adam Clymer was “a major league asshole.”

Such gaffes have occurred with enough frequency in recent years that political reporters enjoy maintaining lists of top “hot mic moments.” Mr. Biden often appears on such lists, though his handlers might consider that distinction not so hot.

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