Common Retronyms

In 1980, Frank Mankiewicz coined the word “retronym,” for a term specifying the original meaning of word after a newer meaning has overtaken it. The term was popularized by New York Times columnist William Safire in a 1992 column, where the writer wondered what people would call “regular mail” after the advent of email. Retronyms had been used long before 1980, though. Here are a few of them.

1. QUILL PEN
Until metal-nib pens became popular in the early 19th century, “pen” meant an implement for writing with ink made from a wing or tail feather of a large bird. The word comes from Old French penne, which in turn comes from the Latin penna, “feather.”

2. RAILROAD CAR
Until the 1890s, “cars” were train cars. In the 1890s, when the term “car” hitched itself to the automobile, the retronym “railroad car” became necessary.

3. LIVE MUSIC
Although mechanical musical gadgets, wind-up music boxes, and player pianos were around before Thomas Edison’s introduction of the phonograph cylinder in 1878, if you said the evening’s entertainment would include music, everyone knew live musicians would be there to provide it.

4. SILENT FILM
Filmmakers had experimented with coordinating recorded sound and movies since 1895, but until the improved sound quality of The Jazz Singer broke the psychological sound barrier in 1927, silent films were, for the most part, known simply as movies or “the pictures.”

5. HUMAN COMPUTER
From the early 1600s until the 1940s, when electronic computers came along, “computer” meant a person who performs calculations. Teams of people would perform long and often tedious calculations, dividing the work so that the calculations could be done in parallel. During World War II, some women computers for the Manhattan Project became the first professional programmers of electronic computers, making the retronym necessary to describe their earlier role.

6. SNAIL MAIL
Electronic communication created the need for a whole list of retronyms. In 1982, someone posted a comment in an online message using the term “snail mail” as if it was already familiar to other members of his online newsgroup: “Our Unix-Wizard mail is slower than snail mail these days.”

7. LANDLINE
When “phone” stopped meaning something tethered to the kitchen wall, we started calling the immobile phones “landlines.”

8. FILM CAMERA
In 1889, Kodak introduced a camera with roll film, replacing those tricky glass plates or low quality paper negatives. Who would ever want anything else? In 1975 Steve Sasson at Kodak built the first working CCD-based digital still camera, leading to the day in 2004 when Kodak ceased production of film cameras.

9. ANALOG CLOCK OR WATCH
Before digital clocks, most clocks and watches had faces and hands.

10. CONVENTIAL OVEN
Before the development of the microwave oven, this term was not used. Now it is commonly found in cooking instructions for prepared foods.

11. REGULAR COFFEE
The development of decaffeinated coffee led to this coinage.

12. BAR SOAP
The common cake of soap used in the tub or shower was familiarly called “soap” or “bath soap”; the term “bar soap” arose with the advent of soaps in liquid and gel form.

13. BLACK-AND-WHITE TELEVISION
Once called simply television, now the retronym is used to distinguish it from color television, which is now more commonly referred to by the unadorned term.

14. SIT-DOWN RESTAURANTS
With the rise of fast-food and take-out restaurants, the “standard” restaurant received a new name in the United States.

15. ONE-SPEED BICYCLE
All bicycles were one speed and simply called bicycles. With the introduction of multiple sprocket gearing systems to the bicycle this retronym became necessary.

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