Have you ever encountered the word retronym? Whatever your answer, I can guarantee that you’ve heard and read and used retronyms. Here’s the story…

Once upon a time, only one type of guitar existed. When the electric guitar was invented, a term was needed to differentiate it from the original kind, which then became an acoustic guitar.

In this case, acoustic guitar is the retronym. Literally, retronym means “backward name”: a word or phrase that’s coined because an earlier word or phrase is no longer unique and suddenly requires elaboration, qualification, or contrast.

Another example: For quite a while, there was only one kind of phone number. When the fax number came along, the old phone number became a voice number. Then, after the cell number was introduced, that revision would no longer suffice, and the original phone number became a landline number.

Here are a few other retronyms:

  • The advent of the microwave oven necessitated the old-fashioned kind being redubbed a conventional oven.
  • Only one sort of diaper used to exist, until the disposable diaper made it essential to differentiate the new invention from the cloth diaper.
  • The electric toothbrush didn’t totally replace the hand-powered kind, which was renamed a manual toothbrush.
  • The introduction of cable TV and satellite TV meant that the original medium had to be referred to as broadcast TV.
  • An adopted child who grows up sometimes searches for his birth mother, as distinguished from his adoptive mother.
  • The popularity of e-mail required that the terrestrial kind be disambiguated from postal mail or snail mail (or, as I like to call it, s-cargo).

Think about how technology regularly introduces new words into the language and changes old ones. It’s interesting to speculate about how differently we’ll communicate 10 or 50 years from now. Or imagine someone from the 1960s arriving in a time machine and attempting to understand, for example, what you’re talking about when you explain a computer problem to a technician.

[Ed Note: For more than three decades, Don Hauptman was an award-winning independent direct-response copywriter and creative consultant. He is author of The Versatile Freelancer, an e-book that shows writers and other creative professionals how to diversify their careers into speaking, consulting, training, and critiquing.]

Don Hauptman was an award-winning independent direct-response copywriter and creative consultant for more than 30 years.
He may be best known for his headline “Speak Spanish [French, German, etc.] Like a Diplomat!” This familiar series of ads sold spectacular numbers of recorded foreign language lessons for Audio-Forum, generating revenues that total in the tens of millions of dollars. In the process, the ad achieved the status of an industry classic.
Don’s work is mentioned in three major college advertising textbooks, and examples of his promotions are cited in the books Million Dollar Mailings (1992) and World’s Greatest Direct Mail Sales Letters (1996). In a column in Advertising Age, his name was included in a short list of direct-marketing “superstars.”
He has a parallel career as a writer on language and wordplay. His celebration of spoonerisms, Cruel and Unusual Puns (Dell, 1991), received rave reviews and quickly went into a second printing. His second book was Acronymania (Dell, 1993).
Recently, Don retired from full-time copywriting in order to focus on other interests, including his passion for “recreational linguistics.” He is at work on a new book in that genre. He is a regular contributor to the magazine Word Ways and writes “The Language Perfectionist,” a weekly column on grammar and usage, for Early to Rise.
Don is author of The Versatile Freelancer,an e-book from American Writers and Artists, Inc. (AWAI) that shows copywriters – and almost anyone – how to diversify their careers into consulting, training, critiquing, and speaking.