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The birth of a shibboleth

OK, technically we cannot see its birth, but the word vinyl to mean “a vinyl record” appears to have a relatively recent shibboleth associated with it. According to Mark Liberman of Language Log, some collectors of such records insist that “the plural of vinyl is vinyl” and that users of the form vinylssound like you buy your music exclusively from Urban Outfitters.”

As Liberman points out, vinyl in the sense of “an organic compound containing ethynyl” is a mass noun, and as such has no plural. Applying a regular plural to a mass noun is generally understood to mean either a specific type or a quantity of the substance that the noun names, as in two coffees to mean either “two cups of coffee” or “two varieties or cultivars of coffee”. (This is sometimes discussed as ‘coercion’ or ‘syntactic accommodation’.)

One user of the vinyl plural insist that it follows “the same principle [that] applies to fish, buffalo, and sperm”. But the zero-plural rule does not seem to be productive, meaning that new words or new word senses would not normally be expected to form the plural in this way. Certainly, I had never heard it suggested that English features some noun class that includes fish, sperm, and vinyl before I read that suggestion. I wonder if people see some semantic basis for such a class, or if it is purely morphological.

In the comments on Liberman’s post Ray Girvan recalls that vinyl in the sense of records took a regular plural during his record-listening youth, and cites two uses of vinyls from magazines published during the 1960s.

Another commenter, Richard Hershberger, notes that this is a shibboleth, or in Hershberger’s words, “an example of artificial linguistic in-group snobbery”. Hershberger wonders whether the precise origin of the usage can be established. I would likewise be very happy to see the moment of birth noted.

I will add this observation: the birth of zero-plural vinyl may have been facilitated by a period during which CDs and digital downloads (such as MP3s) between them satisfied the needs of both Urban Outfitters-style uncool music purchasers and a hipster in-group. That is, at some point in the not-too-distant past, perhaps the late 1990s or early 2000s, it seems likely that vinyl records were sufficiently rare that the regular-plural vinyls of the 1960s essentially disappeared. And this must have occurred prior to the rise of the current in-group zero-plural vinyl.

(I realize that some segment of hipsters has always preferred vinyl records, even during the 1990s, but I’m fairly confident that this only slightly weakens my conjecture. I don’t think that the current group of zero-plural users overlaps all that much with the vinyl-buyers of the 1990s; at least, they’re mostly not the same individuals.)

All of this slightly reminds me of the evolution of the head louse. Kittler, Kayser, and Stoneking (2003) note that the head louse (Pediculus humanus capitis) lives and feeds exclusively on the human head, while the body louse (P. humanus corporis) feeds elsewhere on the body. They suggest that the head louse evolved to live on the head of the otherwise relatively hairless modern human, and the body louse arose only after the introduction of clothing.

Its not directly analogous, but I fancy that the s-less vinyl arose in an environment where vinyls had receded to widely dispersed pockets of chemistry labs, plumbing suppliers, and old-school hi-fi hipsters.


Kittler, R., M. Kayser and M. Stoneking. 2003. Molecular evolution of Pediculus humanus and the origin of clothing. Current Biology 13:1414-1417.