A retronym is a new word or phrase (such as snail mail, analog watch, landline phone, cloth diaper, two-parent family, natural turf, and kinetic warfare) created for an old object or concept whose original name has become associated with something else or is no longer unique. Language maven William Safire defined retronym as "a noun fitted with an adjective that it never used to need but now cannot do without."
The term retronym was coined in 1980 by Frank Mankiewicz, then president of National Public Radio (NPR) in the United States.
Examples and Observations
- Acoustic Guitar
"Remember when a guitar was just a guitar? Then along came electric guitars, giving rise to the term 'acoustic guitar' to set the original apart from the new invention. In this case, acoustic guitar is a retronym."
(Bill Sherk, 500 Years of New Words. Dundurn Press, 2004)
- Real Reality
"People here at the Oculus building on the Facebook campus are so comfortable with VR that they they refer to things outside of virtual reality - what most people call 'life' - as RR, or real reality."
(Joel Stein, "Inside the Box." Time, August 17, 2015)
- Tap Water
"Those fogies that S. J. Perelman wrote were 'afflicted with total recall' will remember what they used to call water. With the rising tide of bottled water, not to mention sparkling water (formerly soda water, or seltzer), New Yorkers who yearn for the pristine product of the local reservoirs have taken to asking the waiter for Bloomberg water, formerly Giuliani water, after the sitting mayor's name. In the rest of the nation, that refreshing and pleasantly inexpensive drink, not carbonated but with its own beaded bubbles winking at the brim, is now known by the retronym tap water."
(William Safire, "Retronym." The New York Times Magazine, January 7, 2007)
"We developed a retronym: if I slipped a book - the kind with covers and pages - into my backpack for the train or to get started on at home, that meant I was reading a 'book-book.' Of course the term itself reinforced her belief - I won't call it a prejudice - against audio reading."
(John Schwartz, "Wired for Sound." The New York Times, November 25, 2011)
- Wet Signature
"A computer signature does not look like handwriting; instead, it is a unique series of letters and numbers in code. A digital signature can actually be safer than the traditional wet signature. If the digital document is dishonestly altered, the sender and recipient can tell."
(Jeffrey F. Beatty and Susan S. Samuelson, Essentials of Business Law. Thomson, 2008)
- Nonvirtual Bulletin Board
"Now a clue has surfaced: a note on an anonymous bulletin board (the nonvirtual, paper kind) called the Secret Place that says 'I know who killed him.'"
(Lev Grossman, "Secret Histories." Time, September 22, 2014)
- Artificial Satellite
"In the 1930s and 1940s, the term satellite became standard for any device designed to be put into terrestrial orbit, a feat achieved in 1957 with the launching of Sputnik by the Soviet Union.
"So as not to confuse the new, human-made satellites with the astronomical ones, the retronym artificial satellite was coined after 1957."
(Sol Steinmetz, Semantic Antics: How and Why Words Change Meaning. Random House, 2008)
- Retronyms in Science
"Retronyms are known in scientific circles as well. Classical mechanics (1933) was created by opposition to quantum mechanics (1922)… Nuclei in physics were initially bound (by implication) but with the creation of unbound nuclei are now called bound nuclei (1937)."
(D. Gary Miller, English Lexicogenesis. Oxford University Press, 2014)