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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]. This is similar to World War One, which was called the Great War prior to World War Two.

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 generally called a "straight razor".

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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