bite » byte

Chiefly in:   sound byte

Classification: English – hidden

Spotted in the wild:

It doesn’t help any that “byte” itself is a pun on “bite” and is accompanied by “nybble” (for five four bits) and a few other words in the same vein. “Sound byte” seems to me to be born of our increasinly digitized world; it’s probably more common online than offline.

I have actually used this myself at least once that I know of: a few years ago I was a regular on an Australian media-watching newsgroup and inadvertently used the eggcorn to ask for more information about something I’d seen the night before. It was immediately noticed and commented upon.

Curiously, while googling for a book using the term, I found it used and defended in “Philosophical Practice” by Lou Marinoff:

My pet homonymic peeve—again symptomatic of a culture rendered senseless by fuzzy speech—is named “sound bite”. You think you know what this means, don’t you? If so, then you probably understand its reference, but not its sense. That’s because “sound-bite” is nonsense. The proper name, whos refcerence bears the intended sense, is the homonym “sound-byte.” In the technical language of digital computing, a “byte” is a chunk (or word) of data, typically eight bits in length, which is processed as a single unit of information.

I think but cannot conclusively prove that Marinoff and other defenders of this eggcorn are mistaken about the origins of “sound bite”; I remain confident that it predates readily-available digital storage of sound by some time, and in any event a single byte is not very much information at all, and definitely not enough space to store, say, a 10 or 30-second sound recording from a politician or talking head.

| link | entered by nooks, 2005/08/28 |


  1. 1

    Commentary by Daniel , 2005/08/28 at 5:47 pm

    You’ll be happy to know that the Oxford English Dictionary agrees with you. In 1993, “sound bite” was added under “sound” with this definition: “orig. U.S., a brief extract from a recorded interview, statement, etc., usu. edited into a news report on account of its aphoristic or provocative quality; transf., a phrase or sentence intended by its speaker to be quoted in this way.”

    The OED cites the 22 June 1980 Washington Post for the first use of the phrase: “Remember that any editor watching needs a concise, 30-second sound bite. Anything more than that, you’re losing them” (emphasis mine).

  2. 2

    Commentary by Daniel , 2005/08/28 at 5:50 pm

    I forgot to add: if the OED is correct, and I’m inclined to believe that it is, that the phrase “sound bite” first appeared in print in 1980, I don’t think it’s likely that its origins had anything to do with digital storage. So Mr. Marinoff’s explanation of its etymology strikes me as an ad hoc rationalization made after the fact.

  3. 3

    Commentary by Matt , 2005/08/29 at 6:04 am

    A nybble is 4 bits, not 5.

    FYI, 5 bits is a “nickle”.

    See: page for nybble

  4. 4

    Commentary by Ann Burlingham , 2005/08/30 at 2:23 pm

    “FYI, 5 bits is a “nickle”.”

    Not a nickel?

  5. 5

    Commentary by Nooks , 2005/08/30 at 3:03 pm

    “FYI, 5 bits is a “nickle”.”

    Not a nickel?

    The Jargon file’s nickle entry says it is so derived:


    /ni’kl/ n. [from `nickel’, common name for the U.S. 5-cent coin] A nybble + 1; 5 bits. Reported among developers for Mattel’s GI 1600 (the Intellivision games processor), a chip with 16-bit-wide RAM but 10-bit-wide ROM.

    The misspelling is probably to force the “e” to be at the end of the word, like “byte” and “nybble”. I have never seen “nickle” used, and the origins probably explain why.

  6. 6

    Commentary by Leslie , 2006/05/20 at 9:50 pm

    “Byte” was coined in the 1960s–in reference to a very small unit of digital data when 64 bytes of data storage was rather large. Therein you find the humor of the phrase “sound byte” as a small chunk of information.

    I’m pretty sure “sound bite” is the mondegreen.

  7. 7

    Commentary by Chris Waigl , 2006/05/20 at 9:53 pm

    Eggcorn, not mondegreen.

  8. 8

    Commentary by Nooks , 2006/05/20 at 11:02 pm

    “Byte” was coined in the 1960s–in reference to a very small unit of digital data when 64 bytes of data storage was rather large. Therein you find the humor of the phrase “sound byte” as a small chunk of information.

    I’m pretty sure “sound bite” is the mondegreen.

    Google’s book search finds an occurrence of “sound bite” in print from 1982, and a scanned-in occurrence of “sound bite” from 1983; “sound byte” does not show up until 1990, in Nutrition in Public Health: A Handbook for Developing Programs and Services.

  9. 9

    Commentary by Amalraj , 2006/06/01 at 6:21 pm

    Sound bite is actually like giviing a sample to the audience, which virutally is like offering them a bite from a larger dish. Thus i think the word sound bite is very appropriate than sound byte. The use of ’sound byte’ must have creeped due to the large penertarion of the technology and as it is seems senseless to apply in the context. Wish more people would understand the true meaning of ’sound bite’ and use it rather than sound byte which looks totaly out of context and coined by somebody who really do not understand the significance of what the word sound bite is supposed to convey.

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