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The Language Perfectionist: Time to Go Retro

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.]