What is a retronym?

Ok, after several “heavy” blog posts in a row, here’s something to lighten things up.

The New York Times Sunday Crossword from December 11th of last year (I’m a little behind on my puzzles) was by Tom McCoy and was entitled “Retronyms.” I was so excited to dive into this puzzle because I am fascinated by retronyms. What is a retronym, you ask? A retronym is a term that is a clarification for something that, prior to some point, wouldn’t have been needed because there wasn’t some other kind of the thing in question. If that definition made no sense to you, Tim offers us 8 fun-filled examples:

  • (BRITISH) ENGLISH, a term not needed before colonialism brought us AMERICAN ENGLISH, CANADIAN ENGLISH, and so forth.
  • (SNAIL) MAIL, almost totally arcanic in the age of Gmail.
  • (REAL) NUMBER, as opposed to all that i nonsense when you take the square root of a negative number (gah, nightmares)!
  • (BLACK) LICORICE, which is gross. I think we can all agree that Twizzlers did us a favor there.
  • (FLATHEAD) SCREW, which I don’t understand the reasons for replacing. Anyone happen to know?
  • (SILENT) FILM, which was a genre ushered out by “talkies.” Thank goodness. Although I did really like “The Artist!”
  • (PAPER) COPY, kind of a more ho-hum example.
  • (ORGANIC) FARMING, as opposed to “conventional” farming I guess.

The classic example often given for a retronym is “acoustic guitar,” an instrument that almost feels quaint in these days of effect pedals and such. “Analog clock” would be another. I thought of one just today (Saturday, as I write this) that I kind of like: “Fresh pasta,” as opposed to all the dried stuff we tend to buy here in the States.

Now, the trick with retronyms is that it is the term for the “old” thing that is the retronym. For example, heterosexual/traditional/opposite-sex marriage are the retronyms—same-sex marriage is the neologism that spurred the retronyms.

Do you now want to know ALL the retronyms?? Of course you do. Well, thankfully, Wikipedia has us covered with a looong list, as per usual.

So, did you know what a retronym was before reading this? What are your favorite ones? How are you going to use your newfound knowledge of retronyms to impress friends, colleagues, and family, and to confound your enemies? Let me know!