Once Bytten

I’ve wondered idly, for a while, whether the correct locution for those snatches of aural information was “sound bites” (which I’d always thought it to be) or “sound bytes” (which I’ve seen increasingly frequently). At first, I was sure it must be “bites,” but I realized that my confidence rested solely on that being to form I’d been approving for years — self-justifying prejudice. “Sound byte,” on the other hand, modified “sound” with a definable quantity of information, and an appropriately small one at that, so I reckoned that I ought to let go my predisposition and actually learn something about the subject.

I first checked the Wikipedia which, though fallible, offers a helpful starting point for online inquiry; it favored “soundbite” (one word), without even mentioning “byte” as a possible error. Then I ran into the eggcorn database which takes up exactly my question, and comes down in favor of “bite” over against Lou Marinoff’s sniffed dismissal, “ ‘sound-bite’ is nonsense.” The scale of evidence tips decisively when a commenter notes that the OED cites a public example from 1980 — well before the digital storage of audio information would have made “sound byte” a coherent term.

Parenthetically, the whole phenomenon of “eggcorns” opens a new horizon of linguistic fascination for me….

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