05 February 2012


by Leigh Lundin

Today is Superbowl Sunday, which means approximately half the North American population will be watching American football instead of reading our cogent articles. With that in mind, we turn our attention to bathroom humor. By that, I mean a 540 page book given me for Christmas called Uncle John's Heavy Duty Bathroom Reader, 23rd addition, published by BRI, the Bathroom Readers Institute. (Thanks, Sharon!) It carries a warning: This book may make you smarter than everyone you know.

I earlier touched on aptonyms, but the UJHDB Reader introduced me to 'retronyms'.

What is a retronym, you ask? Well, you didn't ask, but I have to maintain a word count.

A retronym is almost the opposite of a neologism. It's a new word or phrase used to describe an old term because it's been replaced by something new.

It might help to explain its opposite. For example, the mechanized improvement upon the archer's traditional bow was called the crossbow, and other variations became known as the recurved bow and the compound bow. When men dropped engines into carriages, the new inventions were called horseless carriages or motor cars to distinguish the new-fangled devices.

Simple, right? In the early 1900s, World War I wasn't called WW-I; rather people called it The Great War or with more hope than realism, the War to End All Wars. Sadly, the unthinkable happened again, and in the 1940s with World War II under way, the former Great War was redubbed World War I.

Similarly, prior to 1959, we had no need to refer to the 'contiguous' 48 states or the 'continental' US, because that would have been redundant. However, after the Sandwich Islands and Alaska became states, the terms came into existence.

Here are a baker's dozen, most from the aforementioned book:

acoustical guitar
1930s, needed to distinguish from the new electric guitar
broadcast TV
needed after satellite and cable TV
cloth diaper
1949, needed after disposable diapers
corn on the cob
1920s, needed after canned and frozen 'niblets'
field hockey
simply 'hockey' until invention of ice hockey
baseball renamed after introduction of softball
hard copy
1990s, distinguishes from digital copy
hardcover book
1930s, needed after paperbacks
land line
formerly phone line until advent of cell phones
organic farming
regular old farming until advent of chemical fertilizers, herbicides, and pesticides
silent film
1920s, needed after the new talkies
snail mail
simply called 'mail' until the advent of eMail
vinyl record
originally 'record' until invention of the CD

Fill in additional retronyms below.


Dixon Hill said...

WOW! So field hockey came before ice hockey?? I had no idea. Then again, I live in the desert . . . not a lot of ice around here.

I’m thinking Pipe Organ is probably a retronym. But maybe I’m wrong. Were there other types of organs before electric organs came along? (I can just see Leigh typing: "of course! There were liver, lungs, spleen ..."

Perhaps Prop Plane is also a retronym—employed only after the advent of jet aircraft. This makes me think of certain retronym descriptors in military terminology, using the preface “conventional” to denote that something is “non-nuclear,” such as:

Conventional Submarine

Conventional Weapons

Conventional Warfare

As a side note: Only after reading your post and writing this, do I realize how funny it is that “Unconventional Warfare” is not nuclear warfare: it’s guerrilla warfare. Nuclear warfare is – well -- “Nuclear Warfare”. Hmmm…

Leigh Lundin said...

Good ones, Dixon!

I had to laugh about liver, lungs, spleen…

Dale Andrews said...

Also interesting are circumstances where a new word does not evolve even though it may be needed. We still speak of CD ROMs. ROM means "read only memory", which was initially true -- CD ROMs were going to save the computer induztry from piracy bexause you couldn't copy them -- only read them. Then CD burners came along and now we all "write" "read only memory" all the time. Also: computer disks continued to be called floppies even when they stopped flopping.

Elizabeth Zelvin said...

Hmm. Smartphones, to distinguish them from "conventional" cell phones. Single lens reflex cameras vs digital cameras? Fresh spinach--VERY different from canned spinach.
And what do you call an item whose makers advertise it as something it was all along anyway, like "caffeine-free ginger ale"?

Louis A. Willis said...

Brain dead is what I am right now. Why you may ask. The Super Bowl is on. And I have to watch Peyton's little brother win another one, making him one up on his big brother.

David Dean said...

"Virtual" memory, as opposed to real memory? Does that qualify, Leigh?

Elizabeth, it's "caffeine-free ginger ale" to distiguish it from "diet caffeine-free ginger ale", of course.

Leigh Lundin said...

Thanks! Those are great suggestions.

Louis, I know you'll say when it comes to the Superbowl, it's the destination, not the trip… but the trip is great too, isn't it?

A Broad Abroad said...

How about full-cream milk, analogue watches, manual cars, self-help, steam trains and home-cooking?

I'll probably think of a gazillion more after posting. Fun column - thank you.

Deborah Elliott-Upton said...

As you know, I am always interested in language and how it evolves. Thanks for a quite delicious article!

Herschel Cozine said...

I meant to say "entombed". I don't know how one could be encrypted, but I guess anything is possible in politics.

Herschel Cozine said...

The comment above was meant for another blog. My mastery of the computer still needs some work