This is a term I came across recently, though I’ve been familiar with it for a while.
So familiar, in fact, that I was sure I’d already written about the concept. But after searching the site, I don’t seem to have. So why not do it now then!?
A retronym is a word coined to refer to an existing object or concept, which needs to be distinguished from other similar concepts or objects. OK, it’s a little hard to describe, but think of guitars. There are two main types: acoustic guitars and electric guitars. Before 1931, there were only acoustic guitars, but obviously people didn’t call them acoustic guitars. They just said guitar, as it was the only type of guitar there was. It was only after electric guitars were invented that the term acoustic guitar became necessary to distinguish the two from each other (and yes there are of course bass guitars too, but as you can just call them basses, we’ll leave them out of it).
Retronyms are quite common, and there are some common words that are repeatedly used to make retronyms. Analogue, for example. You might have an analogue or a digital watch. But in the past, what we now call analogue watches (and clocks) were the only type that existed, so they were just called watches. This of course also applies to a lot of technologies like broadcasting, computing, or recording.
Conventional is another common word used to make retronyms, like conventional oven or conventional warfare. Regular or classic are also often used to refer to something when new forms of it come along. Like Classic Doctor Who, for example, to refer to the original series made between the sixties and the eighties. This happens quite a lot in popular culture, especially as remakes, reboots, prequels, and sequels become increasingly common. There’s Star Trek, now often known as the Original Series, to distinguish it from all the other Star Trek series and films. The original Star Wars trilogy was of course once just the Star Wars trilogy. And Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope was once the much humbler Star Wars, until George Lucas decided that actually, he’d always planned to make at least six films. Adding a year to a film title is also becoming quite common, to distinguish the original from a remake/reboot/sequel with the same title, like the horror classic Halloween, from 1978, and this year’s imaginatively titled and kind of OK sequel, Halloween.
Brick-and-mortar shop is another quite new retronym. Before online shopping, it could be safely assumed that all your shopping would be done in a physical location, probably constructed mainly from bricks and mortar.
I could go on all day, but see if you can think of any more, or have a look at this list. It’s interesting that so much of the language we take for granted is actually surprisingly new. People like to complain about language evolving, questioning why we need new words. But I’m sure they wouldn’t even notice that lots of retronyms they use all the time are actually relatively new. I suppose when a retronym makes sense and fills a niche, we don’t notice that it’s new.
5 thoughts on “A New Word for an Old Idea”
I’ve never heard of this but I love it! Makes it easier to describe why we differentiate between similar things!
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When I was editing business magazines, I had to decide whether they were brick-and-mortar shops or bricks-and-mortar one. I can’t remember what I decided.
In fact, many brick(s)-and-mortar shops aren’t actually made out of brick(s) and mortar. You can’t even buy bricks and mortar there. That said, we had bricklayers here this morning doing urgent repairs on the back of our house. They had bought their bricks and mortar somewhere.
I sometimes have to refer to my ‘camera camera’ to distinguish it from my mobile phone’s camera. (Note also the evolution of ‘phone’ and ‘computer’.)
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It’s interesting how when mobile phones first came about, ‘phone’ was assumed to mean ‘landline phone,’ but now it’s assumed to mean ‘mobile phone’ or specifically ‘smartphone.’
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