Share This Spectacular Vernacular
The recent list of of 370 news words added to Merriam-Webster included a playful retronym—dumbphone which is a cell phone that doesn’t qualify as a smartphone. We could debate whether that entry is necessary, but I prefer to focus on the word retronym.
Formed from the Latin retro- (backwards) and -onym (name), or backward name, the word itself only traces back to a 1980 New York Times column. crediting Frank Mankiewicz, the president of National Public Radio, with the vocabulary invention. Mankiewicz focused on the phrase hardcover book, which delineated it from a paperback book (ebooks were still to come).
Prior to paperbacks, of course, hardcover books were just called books. The adjective hardcover was unnecessary, at least until the newer paperback came into existence.
And that’s a retronym—a word or phrase created to distinguish the original from a new entry.
With that knowledge, you see retronyms everywhere. For example, I learned how to drive on a manual transmission, which was known simply as transmission until the newer automatic transmission became more common (at least here in the United States, unlike much of the world). Weirdly, though, manual transmission is often called standard transmission, though comprising only 4% of new cars in the US market, it’s hardly standard.
In my upcoming novel, a character refers to his acoustic guitar, but that would have been simply a guitar until electricity changed things.
I owned a film camera before digital. And I much prefer plain M&M’s to the peanut and regular coffee to decaffeinated. Sitting at my desk, I use wired headphones, not the wireless ones.
Are more retronyms coming to mind? They’re everywhere, so let me know of ones you see. Just don’t tell me by snail mail.