Need to Differentiate Between Two Similar Things? Use a Retronym

I’m the kind of girl that enjoys a throw back. Not because I feel the need to point out to people that “this sweater is vintage”—isn’t it annoying when people do that without being asked?—but because I enjoy the nostalgia factor. The only “retro” thing that has a tendency to annoy me is a retronym. A retronym is a new word or phrase (usually adjective-noun pairing) created for an old object or concept whose original name has become associated with something else or is no longer unique.

Not that retronyms have anything to do with retro culture other than the words sharing Latin origin: “retro” meaning backwards. To me at least, there is an unfortunate connection between the two. It’s my opinion that what retronyms do is take the “retro” feeling right out of the word. Somehow it doesn’t really seem like one is harkening back to a bygone era if one needs to refer to a typewriter as a manual typewriter, or a fireplace as a wood-burning fireplace. This isn’t to say retronyms don’t serve an important purpose.

Retronyms, for the most part, exist to add clarification. The difference between a conventional oven and a microwave oven is very important to those who want to keep their kitchens fire-free. And people who are musically inclined may find the need to distinguish between an acoustic guitar and an electric guitar. Also, retronyms can be useful when differentiating between similarly named people.

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Using retronyms can also fill the need for parallelism. Sometimes you need have that parallel structure to make an accurate but otherwise clunky sentence sound right.  Do you want pizza or pepperoni pizza? Clunk. Now let’s try it with a retronym to make the sentence seem a bit more balanced.  Do you want cheese pizza or pepperoni pizza? Click! “Cheese pizza” is the winner, even if it does seem a bit redundant.

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Speaking of redundancy, sometimes retronyms are used to emphasize that you aren’t referring to the variant form of something (e.g., saying snail mail when most people would know what you meant if you had only said “mail”). I’m not particularly a big fan of this usage, because it makes me feel like I’m stating the obvious. However, sometimes stating the obvious is a necessary evil in today’s technology obsessed culture. It pains me to say that I have had to explain to someone that that the book I just bought is indeed a paper-book and not an e-book. I hope, however, I am never forced to utter the words “analog book”.

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So, when you need refreshment after standing on a hot summer sidewalk, will you reach for bottled water or have some tap water instead? See, thanks to the inclusion of the word “tap” that sentence was nice and balanced. Can you think of any other common retronyms?

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