Literal-Minded

Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

Sinking Your iPod

Posted by Neal on March 6, 2009

Sync, sank, sunk
Doug wanted me to sync his iPod yesterday so he could get some of the Monty Python sketches on there that I’ve been ripping from old records and downloading from iTunes. (At least, the Monty Python sketches that his mother is OK with him listening to.)

“OK, all synced,” I said as I handed it to him. It occurred to me that Doug and probably thousands of other kids had no idea that sync was a clipped form of synchronize, generalized from its meaning of coordinating actions to occur simultaneously to a meaning of making sure two items carry the same information. As far as he knew, the verb might just be sink, with past tense sank and past participle sunk. He’s only recently gotten much use out of the iPod he got a year or so ago, so I haven’t had the opportunity to hear how he forms the past forms, but I was curious enough that I did some Googling when I got back to the computer, and sure enough…

Some speakers out there aren’t sure what the past tense should be:

  • Against my will (my friend didn’t like MY music..grr) my friend sunk (?) my iPod with her iTunes.
  • So whenever I synced (sunk?) my iPod I’d have all my random musical shittings to listen to without really having to think about it much.

Others know that an irregular past tense for sync is a bit iffy, and explain it or highlight it as unusual:

  • But the program wouldn’t transfer every song, so I was waiting until I could figure out how to get the rest of my songs on my new computer before I sunc (past tense of sync) the ipod.
  • Another entry in the Buck Family Unabridged Dictionary of the English Language: sanc (verb, past tense), “to sync”, as in, “You sanc my iPod!”

Still others, as I suspected, use the irregular forms apparently with no idea that anything is amiss:

  • last night when i sank my ipod i got the message to update the ipod software
  • I did correct the album artist fields and deleted those comments and re-sunk my iPod and still those double albums appear.
  • I made my own account and transferred all of my songs on it, it worked great but when i sunk my ipod it deleted all of my songs that i previously bought.
  • Mel is gonna get Rose cuz she sunk my IPOD!
  • i haven’t sunk my ipod for a long time for this very reason.

This innovation seems to be pretty new, since I only get a handful of pages, and most of the hits are from 2008 and 2009. However, it probably predates the iPod, since the iPod is not the first device to require syncing. The earliest hit I got was from June 2007, when I did a search for “past tense of sync” without including the word iPod, and found this mini-rant on a thread in a grammar forum:

Incredibly, people in my office use “sunk” as the past-tense of “synch” or “sync”. All day long, they tell each other (and our software users) that they “sunk” the data. “The data is sunk!”
Can they not hear how ridiculous that sounds? Because these of course are all computer scientists, engineers and database analysts, the question of how to offer an alternative or delicately point out that it’s bad P.R. to go around saying the system is “sunk” is a good one.

This irregularization of sync is a good example of folk etymology, or (because it hasn’t become fully established yet) an eggcorn: People misunderstand the verb sync, but you don’t realize it until they use it in the past tense. Of those who use sank and sunk as past tenses, probably at least some have created some abstract meaning for sink that makes sense, like thinking of the songs as being sunk into, embedded, in their iPods. I don’t see it in the Eggcorn Database yet; the closest is lip-sing for lip-sync(h). Remind me to submit it later today.

Of course, when I said that kids probably had sank as the past tense of sync and sunk as the past participle, I was being hopelessly unrealistic. What they probably have (and the examples above bear witness to this) is sank for both forms , or sunk for both forms , or sank and sunk in free variation. What I’d love to hear is a parent correcting their child: “You ‘sunk’ your iPod? I think you mean you sank your iPod. Today I sync it, yesterday I sank it, I have just now sunk it.” Actually, it would drive me nuts to hear that, but it’s fun to imagine it.

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6 Responses to “Sinking Your iPod”

  1. To complete the picture: the spelling “sink” for “sync(h)” (as in “sink my iPod”) is reasonably common. But by themselves these spellings are not sufficient evidence for a reinterpretation; they could just be spelling mistakes. The innovative past/past-participle forms make the case, though.

  2. Kip said

    For a long time I thought “heat sink” was “heat sync”. I even came up with a silly explanation for it: a “heat sync” took heat from a CPU and tried to distribute it off of the CPU–”syncing” the CPU’s temperature with the ambient temperature. It was several years before I actually saw “heat sink” in print somewhere.

    I wonder if there are many who learn “sync” as “sink”, but also learn that “synced” is the past tense, and end up saying something like “the Titanic sinked into the ocean”?

  3. Dan said

    I have no problem saying /siŋkt/ but I hate spelling it. “Synced”? No, that would be /sinst/. “Syncced”? Um. ew. “Syncked?” I think that used to be the rule (“picnicked”) but I feel like it’s not productive in present-day English. “Synched”? Well… that works, but it’s a little odd given that the “h” is never there in the present tense.

    Google says:
    1,820,000 synced
    601,000 synched
    99,000 sync’ed / sync-ed
    638 syncked
    86 syncced

  4. Uly said

    To continue that, I wouldn’t say “synched”. I’d say “synched up” instead… I have no idea where that up comes from, but that’s the way that sounds right.

  5. As somebody who perfected his English from books (the Comprehensive Grammar of the English Language by Quirk, Greenbaum, Leech, Svartvik among them), I must say that it seems pretty obvious for a newly-coined verb to have regular past/participle forms. The above-mentioned book also contains a comprehensive list of verbs with irregular forms.

    I mean, what’s next? Coining irregular comparative and superlative forms of trendy buzzwords?
    I sure would like to hear what the likes of David Crystal have to say about these phenomena.

  6. Sink your iPod…

    O verbo que comumente é utilizado em inglês para se referir ao ato de sincronizar dados entre dispositivos eletrônicos é sync, redução de synchronize. Essa palavra é pronunciada da mesma forma que um outro verbo do inglês, sink “afundar”. Ape…

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