Retronym

retronymy by John Hendrix

A retronym [re-truh-nim] is a type of neologism that provides a new name for something to differentiate the original version from a more recent one. The original name is most often augmented with an adjective (rather than being completely displaced) to account for later developments of the object or concept itself. Much retronymy is driven by advances in technology.

Examples of retronyms are ‘acoustic guitar’ (coined when electric guitars appeared), and ‘analog watch’ to distinguish from a digital watch. In the entertainment industry, this can manifest itself as calling a movie ‘Part 1’ once sequels are released or by slightly altering the title (e.g. ‘Star Wars: A New Hope’ or ‘Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark’) to emphasize its connection with the sequel(s), or by referring to a television series as ‘the original,’ as in ‘Star Trek: The Original Series.’

At first, the new version of an object is often given a special name to distinguish it from the established version. If, however, the new version becomes the standard, it loses the part of its name that identifies it as new or different, and a retronym is coined for the original. The earliest razors with encased blades were called ‘safety razors’ to distinguish them from what were then just called ‘razors.’ But the safety razor has since become the standard and the original razor is now called a ‘straight razor.’ Similarly, the first bicycles with two wheels of equal size were called ‘safety bicycles’ because they were easier to handle than the then-dominant style that had one large wheel and one small wheel, which then became known as an ‘ordinary’ bicycle. Now, most ‘bicycles’ are expected to have two equally-sized wheels, and the other type is called a ‘penny-farthing bicycle.’

The original use of an adjective to describe a particular variant of an object is typically purely compositional, as in ‘acoustic guitar,’ but gradually over time it becomes a collocation, a name or technical term in its own right with additional nuances, greater specificity, and general but implicit agreement on it as the appropriate term versus alternative descriptions of the original type. The main exceptions to this have to do with ownership, such as a trademark owner adding words to an existing product name or brand to create differentiated names for new variants of a product, which thus enjoy the status of a name immediately upon release of the product range.

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