Fast-paced world spawns 'retronyms'
Thread poster: PB Trans

PB Trans

Local time: 19:21
French to English
+ ...
Nov 23, 2003

Acoustic guitar. Natural flavour. Hard copy. Oil-based paint.


We use them, and create them, almost every day, but most people don't even know what they are.

Don't reach for your dictionary; you won't find it there. Not unless it's the most current American Heritage dictionary - the only one, to date, to list the word for this whole category of new words:

"Retronym: a word or phrase created because an existing term that was once used alone needs to be distinguished from a term referring to a new development or variation."

Time was when all guitars were "unplugged" but now we have the retronym "acoustic guitar", thanks to the electric guitar.

In its early years, television was ... well, television.

But with colour television came the retonym "black-and-white TV." And with digital television, we now have the retronym "analog TV." And there was a day when all mail came via a postal delivery person. Now we send e-mail and voice mail along with "snail mail", or "hard mail" (a preferred retronym by some to avoid being derogatory toward the carriers.)

For youngsters, learning about retronyms may serve to clarify some confusing things in their world. Like the young girl who doesn't understand "counterclockwise." Or the little boy who tears up in frustration when confronted with a rotary phone because he has no idea how to use it. And some kids under 12 (or under 30, for that matter) who cannot imagine milk in just one flavour and only one level of fat content.

Often the digital, cellphone and 1 per cent generation knows the retronyms, but not the original items.

Older folks, who grew up when all clocks had moving hands, phones had dials and wires, and milk was just plain old milk, are usually familiar with both the item and its retronym (analog clock, rotary and land-line phones and whole milk).

Even so, most retronyms evolve without any of us being fully aware of them (manual transmission, real butter, woodburning fireplace), and we integrate them naturally into our lexicon.

Credit for the term "retronym" goes to Frank Mankiewicz, a broadcaster and journalist. His favourite retronyms include "natural turf", for grass, he says, and more recently, "two-parent family."

Lyrysa Smith
The Toronto Star
(Albany Times Union)


Sherey Gould  Identity Verified
Local time: 12:21
German to English
wistful smile Nov 23, 2003

Absolutely delightful!
Reminds me of the time I was reading a novel published in the fifties and the driver of a car was "frantically tapping his left foot on the floorboard trying to hit the brights" and it just hit me like a train - yes! The brights/dimmer siwtch used to be on the floor! (My first couple of cars some 30 or so years ago had that little metal projection down on the floor)... but these things just disappear, without one even realizing it, eh?! It then further struck me, what will someone reading that book 50 years from now make of that... they'll have absolutely no clue...!
Thanks for a smile (even if a wistful one!)


PAS  Identity Verified
Local time: 20:21
English to Polish
+ ...
wistful wishful Nov 23, 2003

I used to drive a Ford Granada in the mid-eighties and it had the bloody metal contraption on the floor.

To look at things from the other side, I have a serious problem with my grandmother, who will turn 93 this coming February. She has an old dial phone which is falling apart and she doesn't know how to use a push-button phone! I tried to teach her and it didn't work too well.
Is my grandma a retronym?

Pawel Skalinski


Lesley Clayton
Local time: 20:21
French to English
+ ...
Ah yes, those were the days Nov 23, 2003

I loved the foot dipper and regret it's passing. I also mourn quarterlights (remember those?) which provided draught-free noiseless air circulation and doubled up as an automatic ashtray. And wing mirrors... Mind you, I was glad to see the back of the column gear change.


invguy  Identity Verified
Local time: 21:21
English to Bulgarian
Funny thing is, the word 'retronym' is a... neologism ;) Nov 23, 2003

Yet another Janus phenomenon - the two sides of the same process: the development of language.

I'd say, the appearance of a word like 'retronym' is a true sign that language changes real fast, nowadays... to the extent that there is no time for a newly coined word to get established, grow old, and surrender to the next one with dignity.

(Rat race syndrome?...icon_wink.gif )

The natural way of words being born, becoming common, and dying out seems to be gone. If it wasn't, 'neologism' would not have needed to be complemented by 'retronym'.

(Uhm... actually, which *is* the 'natural' way?icon_smile.gif )

For those keen on the issue, here's another article that tackles it (IMO a bit lengthy to quote here in full):

(quoting) "You might say that the existential question for word lovers these days is, "To e or not to e?"

So true.

Thanks for the topic, Pinaicon_smile.gif


Katherine Zei  Identity Verified
Local time: 13:21
Italian to English
+ ...
Great article! Dec 1, 2003

Thanks Pina! Once again Canadians are on the cutting edge of language. *polishing nails on shirt*


Alexandra Tussing  Identity Verified
Member (2003)
English to Russian
+ ...
As an aside... Jan 26, 2004

My husband and I just noticed, that more and more of those retronym include the word "real"... since most of the "modern" things tend to be fake, like fake fur, fake fireplaces, fake wooden floors, etc...


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