What Does “Retro” Mean?

By Mark Nichol

What, exactly does retro mean, and where does it come from? This post discusses the definition and derivation of this modern-looking but old-fashioned term.

The adjective retro stems, by way of the French term rétro (short for rétrograde), directly from a Latin preposition meaning “backward” or “behind” and pertains as a stand-alone word to a nostalgic or old-fashioned trend, especially in regard to apparel or decor. (Both those words, by the way, also come from Latin by way of French—Anglo-French, that is, in the case of the former term.)

Retrograde, itself, borrowed into English as such, not only can be identical in meaning with retro but also pertains more literally to backwardness: It refers to backward motion, occurrence, or performance or such behavior that is the opposite of the usual action, especially in astronomical contexts, in which it usually alludes to the apparent backward movement of planets. (The antonym is anterograde.) It is also synonymous with inverse and alludes to reversion to a simpler, inferior, or previous state. In medicine, it pertains to amnesia that affects memories from before a precipitating event such as an injury.

Retro appears as a prefix in a number of other words, including, most commonly, retroactive, which means “effective from a particular date in the past,” and retrospective, which can be synonymous with retroactive but also means “pertaining to the past or something that happened in the past. The word can also be used as a noun, usually to describe an exhibition of an artist’s previous works. Other noun forms are retrospect (literally, “looking back”), generally used in the phrase “in retrospect” (although the word is also used as an adjective and a verb), and retrospection, which describes the action of looking back.

Another familiar term is retrofit, a verb meaning “provide with new components not originally available” but usually pertaining to fortifying a structure against earthquake damage. Retrovirus, meanwhile, refers to a virus with an enzyme that reverses the usual genetic pattern. Finally, a retronym is a phrase coined in response to introduction of a variation of a well-known phenomenon that equals or supersedes the original in popularity or ubiquity, as when the adjective analog was appended to clock to describe a nondigital timepiece or when M&Ms were distinguished as “plain” or “peanut” when the latter type was introduced.

Numerous other terms, usually seen in medical or scientific contexts, also include the prefix.

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5 Responses to “What Does “Retro” Mean?”

  • Andy Knoedler

    Yes, we’re showing our age, but there are still folks alive who remember the early days of astronauts going alone into space. When it was time for them to leave orbit and return to the atmosphere, the retrorockets were fired (one word, no hyphen) to slow their craft before reentry.

    In those days we actually listened to the communications between the space center in Houston and the orbiting astronaut(s), picking up a fair amount of space travel lingo in the process. Nowadays not so much attention is given to people in space.

  • D.A.W.

    Here are three classic examples of retrofitting in technology.
    1. A long time ago, some ships that had been designed and built for coal-burning engines were retrofitted with new boilers (et cetera) to burn fuel oil instead.
    2. Even before that, some large sailing ships were retrofitted with steam engines, not necessarily for propulsion. During the 1870s-1880s, some sailing ships had steam engines retrofitted for refrigeration. These were the ships that started carrying refrigerated meats from Australia, New Zealand, and South America all the way to their consumers in Britain, Ireland, Germany, etc.
    3. Over the years, tens of thousands of aircraft have been retrofitted with radar systems (or improved radars), air-to-air and air-to-ground missiles, and/or improved engines. Many aircraft that started off with turbojet engines (noisy and inefficient) have been retrofitted with turbofan engines (much quieter and more efficient), and some airplanes that started off with piston engines and propellers were upgraded to turboprop propulsion.

  • D.A.W.

    “To retrofit” is a verb that finds numerous uses in applications that are nautical, aeronautical, astronautical, and mechanical, and not just to mundane (terrestrial) uses like fortifying buildings and bridges to withstand earthquakes and hurricanes.

    Also, “retrorocket” is a closed-compound word, not hyphenated, just like reenter, reentry, manmade, antimissile, and anticommunist.
    I have seen many cases of the misspelling of “manmade satellite”.

  • Mark Nichol

    Yes, I forgot to include retro-rocket, short for “retrograde rocket.” Such rockets are used for deceleration and landing. Thanks for your note!

  • Bill

    I know I’m showing my age, but if you were a kid in the early days of the space program and you watched the science fiction of that era, you are probably going to add “rocket” to “retro” before any other word.

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