Retronyms for $1000, Alex

Flickr davidnikonvscanon

Flickr davidnikonvscanon

Retronyms was the category on a recent Jeopardy  TV show. Sometimes the creators of the questions (what a great job) get clever and use a play on words.  Such was not the case I found out when I did some investigation on retronyms.  It means “backwards name.”

A retronym can be described as a term that was once used alone but now has to be distinguished from later versions of the word or term that need more focus or narrowing.

Maybe the best way to show this is though examples:

Technology, as you might imagine, has caused many words to have to be clarified.

  • Mail – we used to just say mail, now we have to distinguish between snail mail and email.
  • Television – at one time, in my lifetime there was only one kind of TV—black and white. No we must say color, digital and high-definition.
  • Books have fallen in the same category now that we have not only print books but also books on tape and e-books.  Don’t forget hardback verses paperback too.
  • Closely related is the copy.  Items used to be hard copy, now we have digital copies too.
  • Telephone used to be sufficient to describe calling someone.  Now we have touch-tone, rotary (really?), cell phone, etc.
  • The computer started out with ones as big as a house and called mainframes.  This was all right until we got into portables, laptops, hand-held, etc.
  • The computer has made us describe an airline ticket in a new way. Many now are e-tickets.
  • Related to the computer, a slash now has to be differentiated from a forward slash.

Our lifestyle has added some retronyms:

  • Full-service gas stations, which were the norm, are now harder to find.
  • Water used to be just water. Now it can be bottled, filtered, and even flavored.
  • Most of us had parents, but now with adoption and maybe someday cloning, we must specify if we mean biological parents.

The business world must contend with retro terms too.

  • A store was a store before e-commerce (which is a retronym itself). Shopping can now be done online or in a brick-and-mortar store.
  • Business conferences were only held in person. No along with face-to-face ones, there are video conferences, phone conferences, etc.

Can you think of more?


2 responses to “Retronyms for $1000, Alex

  1. Woody Woodward

    How about the “deer in the headlights” look when walking into one of these “cultic” coffee shops wanting to order a simple cup of Java? What would the Retronym be for the ignorant person that does’t have a clue about the difference between a “latte, a Macchato, a Mocha, a Cappuccino, a Frappuccino, a Frope`” or a Vivanno?

  2. wordsbybob

    Woody I guess latte, cappachino, etc. coffee would be retronyms. I still like just coffee–usually decaf.