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A retronym is a type of neologism that provides a new name for something to differentiate the original from a more recent form or version.[1]

Advances in technology are often responsible for retronym coinage. For example, the term "acoustic guitar" was coined at the advent of electric guitars,[2] and analog watches were thus named to distinguish them from digital watches.[3]


This column about "trucks and cars" from Popular Mechanics in 1914 was written when the word truck did not necessarily connote a motor truck and the word car did not necessarily connote a motor car. The same topics today would most likely be talked about with the terms hand trucks and railroad cars. Those terms existed in 1914 as well, but they were not obligate for clarity, as they would be today.

Sometimes retronyms serve to differentiate two similarly named people, as with U.S. President George Bush, who, after his son George W. Bush was elected president in 2000, was typically referred to as "George Bush, Sr.", "George H. W. Bush", "H. W.", or "Bush 41" (as he was the 41st U.S. President).

In the entertainment industry, this can manifest itself as calling a movie "Part 1" after sequels are released or by slightly altering the title (e.g., Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope or Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark) to emphasize its connection with the sequel(s), or by referring to a television series as "the original", as in Star Trek: The Original Series.[citation needed]

The earliest razors with encased blades were called "safety razors" to distinguish them from what were then just called "razors". But the safety razor has since become the standard and the original razor is now called a "straight-edge", "open", or "cut-throat" razor.[citation needed]

The first bicycles with two wheels of equal size were called "safety bicycles" because they were easier to handle than the then-dominant style that had one large wheel and one small wheel, which then became known as an "ordinary" bicycle. Since the end of the 19th century, most bicycles have been expected to have two equal sized wheels, and the other type has been renamed "penny-farthing" or "high-wheeler" bicycle.[citation needed]

The original 2001 Xbox console was often referred to informally as the "Xbox one" after the Xbox 360 was released in 2005, to distinguish it from its successor. However, when the next-generation Xbox One was released in 2013, this retronym was no longer applicable; it is now called just the "original Xbox" when disambiguation is needed.[citation needed]

With the increasing legalization of same-sex marriage (or "gay marriage"), beginning in the Netherlands in 2001, terms such as "opposite-sex marriage", "straight marriage", and "heterosexual marriage" arose to distinguish a set of unions which the term "marriage" had previously meant by default.[citation needed]

In Judaism, the Hebrew Bible is referred to as the Tanakh, an acronym for its three sections (the Torah or Pentateuch, the Nevi'im or Prophets, and the Ketuvim or Writings). In Christianity, the Bible includes an additional section, the New Testament, calling the Hebrew Bible the "Old Testament."

Evolution in usage[edit]

The original use of an adjective to describe a particular variant of an object is typically compositional, as in "acoustic guitar", but gradually over time it becomes a collocation, a name or technical term in its own right with additional nuances, greater specificity, and general but implicit agreement on it as the appropriate term versus alternative descriptions of the original.[citation needed]

The main exceptions to this relate to ownership, such as a trademark owner adding words to an existing product name or brand to create differentiated names for new variants of a product, which thus enjoy the status of a name immediately upon release of the product range.[citation needed]

Word history[edit]

The term retronym was coined by Frank Mankiewicz in 1980[2] and popularized by William Safire in The New York Times.[2][3]

In 2000 The American Heritage Dictionary (4th edition) became the first major dictionary to include the word retronym.[4]

In some instances back-formation can be a type of retronymy; for example, humans have always diagnosed diseases (to whatever limited extent that they understood physiology and medicine in each era), but the verb to diagnose as a back-formation from the noun diagnosis was not attested in written English until about 1859.[5] It was thus a new name for an old action.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "Retronym". http://www.websters-online-dictionary.org/: Webster's Online Dictionary. Retrieved 2010-03-10. "A word introduced because an existing term has become inadequate; "Nobody ever heard of analog clocks until digital clocks became common, so 'analog clock' is a retronym". Wordnet." 
  2. ^ a b c Safire, William (January 7, 2007). "Retronym". New York Times. Retrieved 2008-07-25. "The Merriam lexies, always strong on etymology, cite the earliest usage they can find of retronym in this column in 1980, which credited Frank Mankiewicz, then president of National Public Radio, as the coiner. He was especially intrigued by the usage hardcover book, which was originally a plain book until softcover books came along, which were originally called paperback and now have spawned a version the size of a hardcover but with a soft cover trade-named with the retronym trade paperback." 
  3. ^ a b Safire, William (November 1, 1992). "Retronym Watch". New York Times. Retrieved 2008-07-25. 
  4. ^ Smith, Lyrysa (November 23, 2003). "New words for old times". Wisconsin State Journal. Archived from the original on April 28, 2008. Retrieved March 20, 2011. "Retronyms. We use them, and create them, almost every day, but most people don't know what they are. Don't reach for your dictionary; you won't find it there. Not unless it's the current American Heritage dictionary - the only one, to date, to list the word" 
  5. ^ Merriam-Webster, Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary online. 

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6 news items

Sydney Morning Herald
Fri, 27 Jun 2014 06:41:15 -0700

Shaped by history, the other common avenue to uncommon antonyms is the retronym route. Acoustic guitars, say, were once just guitars, but then Dylan went electric in 1965 and we needed the distinction. Paper books, cloth nappies, even The Old Testament ...

The Jewish Journal of Greater L.A.

The Jewish Journal of Greater L.A.
Mon, 30 Jun 2014 13:43:34 -0700

I don't mean e-books. If they're cluttering your e-reader, all you have to do is delete them, and you don't even have to do that, since you can pretty much fit the Library of Congress on a thumb drive. But physical books – the creepy retronym for the ...

Headlines & Global News

Headlines & Global News
Fri, 27 Jun 2014 12:21:06 -0700

As a replacement for the upload option, the company recommended that users download Retronym's free AudioCopy app so they can record and post audio. "As we focused on making the best possible listening experience, we decided to remove the Record ...
Sonic State
Tue, 08 Jul 2014 23:02:34 -0700

Akai has released iMPC Pro, which they describe as a 64-track music production powerhouse for your iPad. A spokesperson told us, "With built-in sampling functionality, a sound library, effects, and performance-driven features, iMPC Pro brings the ...
Nyelv és Tudomány
Wed, 09 Jul 2014 20:53:38 -0700

Miért nincs olyan nyelvészeti szakszó a magyarban, hogy „retronima” (angol: retronym)? A jelentése világos, jelenleg indokolt is lenne számomra a használata, de sajnos nyomát sem találom az általam hozzáférhető szakirodalomban, sőt még a neten sincs ...


Fri, 27 Jun 2014 02:45:00 -0700

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