Wednesday, March 24, 2010


Kevin asked about a term he encountered in a list of -nym words -- think synonym and antonym. A retronym is a renaming necessitated by radical changes to the original technology or to significant technological advances. It comes from retro-, going back, and –nym, a form for name. In this case, examples will be useful.

  • Acoustic guitar became necessary after the invention of the electric guitar.
  • In earlier times, all clocks had moving hands to signify hours and minutes. When the digital clock was invented, the original was renamed an analog clock.
  • When buttons appeared on telephones, earlier phones were designated as dial phones or rotary dial phones to distinguish them.
  • And when traditional mail began to be supplanted by email, it was cruelly dubbed snail mail.
  • At one point, computer disks were square and could be bent. When hard CD ROMs were ushered in, the originals were renamed floppies or floppy disks.
  • Manual typewriter was unnecessary until the introduction of the electric typewriter. Now that’s been supplanted by the word processor and Lord knows what else.
  • With the introduction of high definition TV, the older version was referred to as standard definition.
  • Gas and electric grills made it necessary to distinguish wood-burning grills or charcoal grills.
  • When sales became normal on the internet, the term brick-and-mortar stores appeared.
  • Sharing the same sort of relationship are cyberspace and meatspace.
  • When inventions to record music came along, we needed the term live music.
  • When scanners were invented, copies printed on paper became hard copies.

Sometimes using a retronym reveals something about the user. If your grandmother or great-grandmother refers to a refrigerator as an icebox, she’s dating herself. That's why sometimes I feel like a walking retronym.

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