Skip to main content

Computer mice or computer mouses?

Related image

The first computer mouse (1964)
 

The English word mouse has been around longer than the English language has.  Its origin is in the Proto-Germanic word mūs, which is also a word for the rodent.  It gave rise to the Old English mous and mowse, the German Maus, and the Dutch muis.  The reason the word has the peculiar plural form of mice is due to a process known as cheshirization, where a change in the way certain sounds in a language change, but an obsolete phonological distinction gets reclassified as a new form.  To make this simpler, mice is descended from the Proto-Germanic mūsiz, which is the form of the nominative and vocative declensions of mūs.  You need not know what a declension is, except that the vocative declension no longer exists in English (not as a distinct, marked form, at least).  The only way a declension changes the modern English word mouse is when we use the possessive declension mouse’s.  Declensions are something you need to have a better grasp on if you learn modern German (and even more so if you learn Old German and Old English), but modern English makes it pretty simple for us.




The reason those “vanishing forms” are referred to as cheshirization is a reference to the Cheshire Cat in Alice in Wonderland, which disappeared bit by bit until all that remained was his smile.  This term was coined in 1991 by linguist James Matisoff.  Mice is, then, the remaining “smile” of the Cheshire Cat.  Cheshirization is also known as rephonologization, which means the exact same thing, but is not nearly as much fun.

The word has taken on a number of different meanings over time.  Mouse has always been the English word for the rodent, but it's also taken on a figurative meaning as a term of endearment, though I'm not sure I've heard anyone use it outside of centuries-old literature.  A mouse can be someone who is shy, though the adjective mousy is preferred to convey this meaning.  It can also mean a group of broken blood vessels, particularly used by boxers.  It can mean a short match used to set off a cannon.  It can be a short length of rope used by sailors in the days of the wooden navies.  It could mean a small bun of women's hair.

Most alternative meanings of mouse have vanished with changes in fashion or technology.  In light of all these varied uses of the word, it shouldn't surprise us that it got another new identity more recently, with the advent of the personal computer.  A new device for inputting data into computers debuted in 1964, invented at the Stanford Research Institute by researcher Douglas Englebart.  Englebart called his invention a mouse.  Englebart chose the name because he felt it resembled the small, furry rodent.  It has since been claimed that MOUSE is an acronym for Manually-Operated User-Selection Equipment.  While this is a pretty accurate description of what a mouse does, this is not the origin of the name of the device.  Use of the computer mouse didn't really take off until around 1981, but in the 55 years of its history, they've never really been known by any other word.

It's hard to imagine a situation where a user would need more than one mouse at a time.  Humans only have so many hands, and more than one of these devices competing to input data is just something we don't do.  But if we did have more than one of them, what would we say?  Englebart, true to his association of the device with the animal, actually pluralized it as mice.  Indeed, mice is the most common plural of the computer mouse that is used in English.  However, the Oxford English Dictionary states that both terms are acceptable.  You can say there are two computer mice, or two computer mouses.  This still doesn't apply to the animal, where mice is the only acceptable plural.

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

43-Man Squamish: An Innovation in Athletics

For some people, one of the most tantalizing challenges is being told, explicitly or implicitly, that you can’t do something.  In 1965, MAD magazine writer Tom Koch laid down one such challenge.  He wrote an article laying out the rules of a sport he invented called 43-man squamish.  The article was illustrated by artist George Woodbridge, and judging by the mail MAD received from its readers, it was a huge hit.  Of course, Koch didn’t really intend the article to be a challenge.  His idea was to invent a sport that was complex, convoluted, absurd, and ultimately unplayable.  It featured the kind of text readers of MAD, not athletes, would expect.  It’s an uncommon sport that has instructions like, “The offensive team, upon receiving the Pritz, receives five Snivels in which to advance to the enemy goal.  If they do it on the ground, it’s a Woomik and counts as 17 points.  If they hit it across with their Frullips it’s a Dermish which only counts points.  Only the offensive Niblings a…

Kick the Football, Charlie Brown

For nearly the entire run of Charles Schulz's Peanuts comic strip, one running gag has been the football gag.  The gag is simple: Lucy Van Pelt kneels down on the grass, holding a football in place, and tells Charlie Brown to kick it.  Charlie Brown gets a good running start, ready to give it a good, solid kick, but at the last minute, Lucy pulls it away.  The final panel usually has a miserable Charlie Brown laying on the ground while Lucy looks over him, holding the football, telling him in one way or another that he obviously shouldn't have trusted her.
The gag first appeared on November 14, 1951, when the strip was just over a year old.  In the first occurrence, the football was not held by Lucy but by Violet Gray, another little girl in Charlie Brown’s neighborhood.  (Violet would later become a minor character in the strip, and Lucy would become a major one.Lucy wouldn’t appear in the strip until the following year.)  The first football gag is quite a bit different from w…