Posted by: Jack Henry | March 5, 2019

Editor’s Corner: Retronym

Today I received a newsletter about a word I hadn’t heard before: retronym. I was thinking it must mean something about old clothing styles or movies or technology that came back into fashion—but I was wrong.

According to Wikipedia: “A retronym is a term used to describe an older object or idea to contrast it with something similar but newer.” Here is an example from The Grammarist, which might give you a better idea of what they are and how they are formed:

Evolving technology does not always create new words, sometimes it takes words that have been in use for a period of time in the English language and gives them new meanings. For example, the word phone has been in use for a long time to mean an instrument that one uses to call another person to speak with him. For decades, all phones worked by virtue of a rotary dial. Today, when one says the word phone, it conjures the image of a hand-held wireless device. To talk about the original model of the phone, it is now necessary to refer to the retronym rotary phone.

Make sense? Here are a few more retronyms for you, from Wikipedia:

  • Manual transmissions in vehicles were just called "transmissions" until the invention of automatic transmissions.
  • Plain M&M’s: Plain M&M’s candies (now Milk Chocolate) would not have been called that until 1954, when Peanut M&M’s were introduced.
  • Regular coffee: The development of decaffeinated coffee led to this coinage.
  • Acoustic guitar: Before the invention of the solid-body electric guitar, all guitars amplified the sound of a plucked string with a resonating hollow body. Similarly: acoustic piano.
  • Bar soap: The common cake of soap used in the tub or shower was familiarly called "soap" or "bath soap"; the term "bar soap" arose with the advent of soaps in liquid and gel form.
  • Corn on the cob: Before canned corn was widely available, "corn on the cob" was simply "corn".
  • Paper copy, hard copy: With the proliferation of exchange of documents in the form of electronic files, physical copies of documents acquired this retronym. Occasionally extended to the copying devices; i.e. paper copiers..
  • Silent film: In the earliest days of the film industry, all films were without recorded sound. Once "talkies" became the norm, it became necessary to specify that a particular film was "silent".
  • Sit-down restaurant: With the rise of fast-food and take-out restaurants, the "standard" restaurant received a new name in the United States.
  • Whole milk: Milk was formerly available in just one version, with the cream included, and benefited eventually by pasteurization and homogenization. But it was still called simply milk. This variety of milk is now referred to in the U.S. as whole milk (3.25% milkfat) to distinguish it from 2% (reduced fat) milk, 1% (low fat) milk, and skim milk (nearly no fat).

She’s so retro, the first woman’s hair doesn’t fit into the picture! And you

must love the gloves!

Kara Church

Technical Editor, Advisory

Symitar Documentation Services

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