Mice or mouses?11-May-2012
I don’t consider myself to be particularly anal, except when it comes to my use of English. I hate to be corrected. So it was with a little irritation that I found myself being corrected in a meeting when talking in a general way about computer mouses. “Don’t you mean ‘mice’?” someone pointed out helpfully. “Erm, yes, I think so … er, hang on, isn’t it different for rodents and computers?” I stammered. The questioner was unconvinced.
Which left me considering that most enduring of existential questions: What is the plural for a computer mouse? Simply admitting that I’d got the word wrong and accepting that mice was and is the only correct form of mouse would have been the sensible and easiest thing to do, allowing me to get on with my day. But the thought kept nagging at me – mice just didn’t sound right. I had to find out the truth.
At the point most normal people would say “Just let it go …”, I went where nearly all of us go when we’re looking for quick answers – the internet. And I was reassured to find that I was not alone in pondering this linguistic conundrum. There were discussion boards, random queries on Q & A sites and Wikipedia entries all dedicated to the problem.
My search began with the origins of the mouse (in purely computing terms). I discovered that mouse was an acronym standing for “Manually Operated User Selection Equipment”. However, after a bit more reading, it turned out that this explanation was one applied retrospectively as a humorous acronym (or ‘back-ronym’ as someone suggested). The more prosaic origin came from the inventor of the computer mouse, Douglas Engelbart, who first coined the term mouse because he thought his invention looked like a mouse, with the lead resembling a tail. So, if the inventor of the computer mouse named it after the animal, logically the plural form would remain the same. One nil to the mice. This was not going well.
I then decided to do the Google test and typed “computer mouses” into the search. It returned 248,000 results. So far so good. I then typed “computer mice” into the search and waited. Nine million four hundred and ninety thousand results. Strike two to the mice. To fully test that this was not a freakish result (and for my own amusement, as well) I typed in “computer mousen” and “computer meese” and returned numerous results for those too. Clearly then, this had been a rubbish test and in the name of common sense (and not my own stubbornness), I decided to disregard these results.
After a little more searching, I finally found a convincing linguistic argument supporting my case for mouses. The argument is this: the computer variety of mouse is a headless noun so the normal rules of pluralizing do not apply. In other words, when the noun is used in a context separate from its most common meaning it does not need to follow the same rules of pluralizing. Let’s take the example of the Toronto Maple Leafs. A maple leaf is a type of leaf and the plural of leaf is leaves so maple leaves takes the common plural form. However, The Toronto Maple Leafs are an Ice Hockey team, not a variety of leaf, so pluralizing them as Leafs is acceptable. And it was common usage (not to mention the team’s choice) that has determined that theToronto ice hockey team will be known as the Maple Leafs and not the Maples Leaves.
Further searches also uncovered the fact that computer manufacturers generally call computer mouses ‘mouse devices’ as a way of steadfastly avoiding this pluralizing problem.
So, after all that, I decided that I had been proven right … sort of. In the process, though, I’d discovered that maybe I was a bit more anal than I realized. But after spending more time than can be considered reasonable to prove a point, I’ve decided to leave it up to others to decide which term is right.
So, mice or mouses – which side are you on?