Before the Internet, record stores provided the three-dimensional turf necessary for big nerds to have huge arguments over tiny things.
But in recent years, one of the itchiest record store disputes has been generational. And it hasn’t been about music. It’s been over a word. Vinyls.
Step into a record store any other day of the year, and you’ll probably witness something like this: A whippersnapper comes bouncing in, asking if there are any Rolling Stones “vinyls” for sale. The clerk cringes. Older customers roll their eyeballs skyward and skullward. Those beautiful black circles are called records. Or LPs. “Vinyl” is acceptable, but never “vinyls.”
Last month, during the South By Southwest music festival in Austin, Tex., I popped into Waterloo Records, one of the most smartly-stocked record shops in the country. At the register, they were peddling refrigerator magnets touting the law of the land: “THE PLURAL OF VINYL IS VINYL.” I let out a smug chuckle.
Until I saw a tween waiting in line to pay for her records/vinyls. She read the magnets’ decree out loud, then scrunched her face with confusion.
Could you blame her? As a format, vinyl nearly disappeared in the late ’80s, only to come creeping back in recent years. In January, Nielsen Soundscan reported that sales of vinyl records in the U.S. jumped from 4.5 million in 2012 to 6.0 million units sold in 2013. That means something once practically obsolete has become brand new to a generation of music enthusiasts and they’re using their English-speaking instincts to talk about it.
Think about it. If you enjoy listening to music on the cassette format, you collect cassettes. If you enjoy listening to music on the CD format, you collect CDs. And if you enjoy listening to music on the vinyl format, you collect vinyls, right?
Nooooooooo, cry the grizzled record collectors and shop lurkers (like me) who helped keep places like Waterloo afloat for years before vinyl made its flashy comeback. The plural of vinyl is vinyl!
So is it?
First, the blog’s co-founder Mark Liberman tried to discern if “vinyl” qualified as a mass noun, sometimes called an uncountable noun. These nouns — such as cheese, beer and wine — refer “to stuff that comes in variable but conceptually undifferentiated quantities that are measured rather than counted,” Liberman wrote.
But Liberman also asserted that mass nouns could be put through a process he called countification, “whereby the plural form of a mass noun can be used to refer to more than one type or instance of the named category of stuff.” Which is why nobody gives us funny looks when we talk about different kinds of cheeses, beers and wines. “Vinyls” seems to fit nicely into that group, doesn’t it?
Others might consider “vinyl” to be a zero plural — a plural that’s identical to its singular form, such as deer, fish, scissors and buffalo — but Liberman thinks otherwise. Regarding the “vinyl is the plural of vinyl” rule, he concludes, “This is an unusually pure case of peevological emergence, without either tradition or logic on its side, and also (as far as I can tell) without any single authoritative figure behind the idea.”
And who wants to hang out at a record store filled with authority figures, anyway? Shouldn’t the local record shop be a place where young radicals can defy their cranky, language snob elders?
So carry on, kids. Call them “vinyls.” Anyone who loves record stores should be overjoyed you’re calling them anything at all.