Thursday, March 31, 2016

The Word: Retronym

I found a new word! I love new words. And what's great about this word is it describes making new words out of old words. The word? Retronym.

retronym: \ˈretrōnim\

Date: 1980

Function: noun

: a new term for something that differentiates the original from a more recent form or version

Giving something old a new name. It happens often due to progress or the advancement of technology. For example, the term "acoustic guitar" was sparked after the arrival of electric guitars - before then, it was just a guitar. Anything with "old fashioned" or "classic" included in the name is a retorynm, such as "Coca Cola Classic" or "old fashioned ice cream." Retronyms are also created in other ways, though, such as the initiation of the phrases "Contiguous United States" or "Lower 48" after Alaska and Hawaii became states.

Retronyms can also be applied to people. When a ruler has or adopts the same name as a predecessor, the Roman numeral I is added to the original's name retroactively (if he hadn't already used one during his lifetime). In the United States, when a son is named after the father (Jr.), the elder may be given the suffix Senior (Sr.).

Now that you've had a crash course on what they are, you've probably realized you use retronyms all the time. There's a nice list here, but I've included 10 of my favorite retronyms below:
  1. Analog clock: Before the invention of digital clocks, most clocks had faces and hands. Related: Analog watch.
  2. Bar soap: This term arose with the advent of shower and bath soaps in liquid and gel form. Mmmm, bubbly loofas.
  3. Corn on the cob: This Minnesota favorite used to be called simply "corn" before canned corn became widely available.
  4. Landline phone service: Before cellphones and smartphones, this term was generally only used by military personnel and amateur radio operators.
  5. Real numbers: This phrase was coined after the invention of the imaginary numbers, which are a very real thing.
  6. Black-and-white television or movie:  It was just "the movies" or "television" until color television came along. Furthermore, the retronym "Standard Definition Television" has become necessary to differentiate it from HDTV (high definition). Related: Silent film.
  7. Snail mail or postal mail: Before email and voice mail, all mail was simply mail. Obviously much slower by comparison – thus, the "snail" addition.
  8. Star Trek: The Original Series: It used to be just Star Trek, but this retronym became a necessity after a multitude of movies and spinoffs.
  9. Offline: Also known as "face to face," or "in real life" (IRL). Before computer and smartphones came around, the ways to communicate were landline phone, snail mail, or face to face. Now there's so many ways people can interact online, we had to coin a new term to describe reality and daily life. Think on that for a moment.
  10. Regular coffee: Personally I think it should be "real coffee," but whatever it's called, I just need to be able to tell it apart from the decaffeinated stuff.
  • Bonus: Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope. When it was released in 1977, it was just Star Wars. The new title was applied after the first sequel was introduced. Now Star Wars refers to the entire series. 
Strange things happen to language over the course of time: Sometimes retronyms flip around. When razors with encased blades were introduced, they were called "safety razors" to distinguish them from what at the time was just simply "razors". Now, we would never call those plastic things a safety razor, we tend to just call it a razor, and we refer to the original style of razors generally as "straight razors" or "cut-throat razors".

Retronyms. New words to describe old things. The process of applying these labels obviously has been happening for a long time as new things are invented. It's interesting that we didn't have a word to describe this process until a relative short while ago. As technology speeds along, we're sure to see more of them pop up in the future.

Sara Duane is a freelance writer in the Twin Cities area of the great state of Minnesota.   

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