Retronyms: Looking Backward Through Language

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Language evolves along with our changing culture. For example, there was a time only a few decades ago when the meaning of the word diaper was not debatable. It was a cloth wrap for babies’ bottoms, also called a nappy, often made of old rags which were washed and hung out on the clothesline to dry in the sun. But with the advent in the late ’70s of—and rapid replacement by—disposable diapers, the word cloth diaper was born, out of necessity, to distinguish it from the newer version.

Cloth diaper, and other words that are newly created to distinguish the original or older form of something from other, more recent forms, are known as retronyms. This word is a combination of Latin retro-, meaning before, and Greek -onym, meaning name. 

The oldest print usage that we know of for the word retronym itself is from [my hero] William Safire’s column “On Language” in a 1980 issue of The New York Times, in which he cited then-president of NPR Frank Mankiewicz’s collection of them (merriam-webster.com). The typical retronym is actually a combination of two words: a familiar noun and its modifier, that distinguishes the original from its more recent replacement. In short, a retronym is a newer word for an older thing. “It is thus a word or phrase created to avoid confusion between two types, whereas previously (before there were more than one type), no clarification was required” (wikipedia). 

Most retronyms are the result of technological and scientific advances that bring about an advanced modification of the original item. The arrival of the “talkies” in the 1920s, for example, gave rise to the retronym silent movie, just as in the 1930s diesel and electric trains began replacing steam locomotives. There are fewer propellor planes in the skies now that they’ve been largely replaced by jet engines. Do you, like me, still drive a gas-powered, or fuel-burning car as opposed to an electric vehicle? Most likely, but few of us still use a manual transmission—originally called a standard transmission until automatic transmissions became, for all intents and purposes, standard! Before the invention of the electric guitar, acoustic guitars amplified the sound of a plucked string with a resonating hollow body. By now you have probably replaced much of your old bar soap with the liquid kind. We need new words to distinguish these old, familiar versions from the new, soon-to-be commonplace, ones.

The large number of retronyms we can now count reflects the rapid pace of change over the past century—so rapid it sometimes makes my head spin! Are you old enough to remember the manual typewriter, that was replaced in the 1950s with the electric typewriter, well before it again gave way to the computer? All of these changes took place during my lifetime. Do you remember the “Selectric” typewriter, with the moving ball that could be changed to change fonts? It was all the rage at one time. Everyone of a certain age once used a film camera for all their photographic needs, but now this has become more a tool for artists and professionals. Fewer and fewer of us (old fogies, perhaps) bother to maintain a landline phone when we can instead rely on our multifunctional smart phone.

To distinguish them from newer, digital versions, many retronyms involve the word analog—for example, analog watch, analog clock, or analog recording. Similarly, the larger, stay-in-place desktop computer is now less common than the handy, portable laptop. Snail mail is a descriptive retronym that captures the contrast between slow-moving letters sent via the U.S. Post Office and lightning fast, internet-based email that has largely replaced it. During my adult life, we’ve advanced from the hard disk to the floppy disk to no disk at all! Now everything is stored on the hard drive inside our computers—or just as often these days, in the cloud.

There is an ongoing shift from print and paper-based products to digital and online ones: print media of all kinds—newspapers, magazines, and books—seem to be slowly disappearing, replaced by digital and social media. Prior to the invention of paperback books in the 1930s, all books had hardcover bindings, but now the hardcover book is only one of many format choices, with ebooks and audiobooks joining paperbacks on the list. Even the word handwritten is a retronym, resulting from the arrival of typed, printed, and electronic documents. I usually file a hard copy of important documents sent to me digitally, but do I really need to? Before the rise of big chains, we all shopped at independent bookstores, but now they are becoming a rare animal indeed; the pandemic has hastened their demise, including our own beloved Over the Moon Bookstore. And with the meteoric rise of online shopping, many brick and mortar stores of all kinds may soon follow the same route. 

Moving to the kitchen, before microwave ovens became widely available in the 1970s, an oven was an oven—except perhaps those used in specialized cooking methods such as India’s tandoori or the American Southwest’s adobe ovens. But after microwaves, the retronym conventional oven was coined, and is now ubiquitous on frozen food box instructions. Whole milk differentiates it from skim or “low fat” milk, and after factory-produced food became the norm in the ’40s and ’50s, a whole new organic farming industry arose to produce organic food, free from artificial fertilizers and pesticides. Yogurt was at one time just yogurt, which one might sweeten with honey or fruit. But once food manufacturers started offering a wide array of flavor combinations, plain yogurt now occupies a much smaller section of the grocery store’s refrigerated shelf. 

Most of these changes in our language highlight improvements in our lives, with instant long-distance communications, video streaming, cloud computing, and the “picture phone” only imagined in old sci-fi books and films now the norm. They also celebrate human ingenuity, ever inventing and finding creative solutions to make our lives easier and communication faster. We can only begin to imagine what kind of technological—and accompanying language—change awaits us in the future!  

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