What’s a Retronym?

By Maeve Maddox

When my children were infants, they wore diapers. Every so often I would splurge on a box of the newfangled, expensive, disposable kind. Now when people say “diaper,” they mean the disposable kind and would call the kind I used “cloth diapers.”

Earlier than that, back when he mowed the grass, my big brother longed for an “electric mower.” Now the kind of mower he called a “lawnmower” is called a “push lawnmower.”

“Cloth diaper” and “push lawnmower” are retronyms.

The term retronym came into the language in 1980 when William Safire credited Frank Mankiewicz, president of National Public Radio, with its first use.

Here’s the OED definition of retronym:

A neologism created for an existing object or concept because the exact meaning of the original term used for it has become ambiguous (usually as a result of a new development, technological advance, etc.). A retronym typically consists of the original term combined with a modifying word.

Here’s the definition from the Merriam-Webster Collegiate Dictionary:

a term consisting of a noun and a modifier which specifies the original meaning of the noun <"film camera" is a retronym>

Although the term is new, the practice is old.

For example, before the invention of the breech-loading rifle, the most common way to load a gun was by way of the muzzle. When the new “breechloader” became common, the retronym muzzleloader was born.

Same thing with “World War I.” Before the invasion of Poland in 1939, the global war that took place between 1914 and 1918 was known as “The Great War,” or the “14/18 War.” There had to be a WWII before there could be a WWI. World War I is a retronym.

Ditto “silent movies.” Before the invention of “talkies,” movies without sound were just movies.

Retronyms are created at a dizzying pace as words that once meant just one thing require more and more modifiers:

coffee – regular, decaf, specialty?
mail – email or snail?
mother – biological, adoptive, or surrogate?
oven – microwave, conventional, convection?
restaurant – sit-down, take-out, fast-food?
soap – bar, liquid, body wash, soft, gel?
telephone – landline, cell, wireless?
television – analog, digital, or HD?

Historical novelists aren’t the only ones who have to worry about anachronistic vocabulary.

William Safire on Retronyms
Wikipedia article “Retronym”
NationMaster list of retronyms

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6 Responses to “What’s a Retronym?”

  • –Deb

    LOVE this post. Looking back is fun, but looking back at word changes is even MORE fun.

  • sudharm baxi

    Fantastic post…
    People change, cultures change, attitudes change, ideologies change then why not WORDS…

  • PreciseEdit

    I confess that this is a new term for me. I have been telling clients “Well, it used to be called just a . . . .” and asking “Do you mean a . . . or a . . . ?”

    Here are my examples.

    “Disposable safety razor” and “nondisposable safety razor” as retronyms for “safety razor” (As in “He left his razor in the hotel bathroom.” If the razor is disposable, this might not be important.)

    “Safety razor” and “straight razor” as retronyms for “razor” (As in “He waved his razor in front of her face.” If he’s swinging a safety razor, she might not be too worried.”

    “Hybrid car engine” and “gasoline car engine” as retronyms for “car engine.”

    “Fountain pen” and “quill pen” as retronyms for “pen”

    Hey, this is fun!

    (Seriously, though, these terms may be important for clarity.)

  • Amy W.

    day game, hard copy, land line, wheat bread, sugared soda

    future retronym: gas car

  • Francis Onaiyekan

    Thanks for this write up on this uncommonly used word ‘ retronym’ . I am educated. – Francis Onaiyekan , Lagos, Nigeria.

  • Connie

    How about transgender man and transgender woman? It seems, though, that this adjective is often used as a description for segregating, much as the word “black” is used in describing a person who is of
    African decent. I’m reminded of the theme song to “All in the Family”, when Archie sings, “And you knew who you were then, Girls were girls and men were men.”

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