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A retronym is a type of neologism that provides a new name for an object or concept to differentiate its original form or version from a more recent form or version.1 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),2 and analog watch to distinguish from a digital watch.3 Often, at first, the new version of an object is 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-edge," "open," or "cut-throat" 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 has been renamed "penny-farthing" or "high-wheeler" bicycle. Prior to the introduction of pneumatic tires, riding over the large wheel of the "penny-farthing" gave a much smoother ride, which accounts for their popularity. The "penny-farthing" itself had displaced bicycles with more equal wheels. Almost at the same time the "penny-farthing" was introduced the older bicycles became known as "bone-shakers", possibly another retronym.
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 Episode IV: 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. It is often used in order to differentiate similarly-named people, as in the case of US President George Bush, who, after his son George W. Bush was elected President in 2000, was typically referred to by such retronyms as "George Bush, Sr.", "George H.W. Bush", or (having been the 41st President) "Bush 41".
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.
- List of retronyms, more examples
- Contrastive focus reduplication
- Retroactive continuity
- Retroactive nomenclature
- "Retronym". http://www.websters-online-dictionary.org/: Webster's Online Dictionary. Retrieved 2010-03-10. "A word introduced because an existing term has become inadequate; "Nobody ever heard of analog clocks until digital clocks became common, so `analog clock' is a retronym". Wordnet. A retronym is a type of neologism coined for an old object or concept whose original name has come to be used for something else, is no longer unique, or is otherwise inappropriate or misleading. The term was coined by Frank Mankiewicz and popularized by William Safire in 1980 in The New York Times. Many of these are created by advances in technology. However, a retronym itself is a neological word coinage consisting of the original noun with a different adjective added, which emphasises the distinction to be made from the original form."
- Safire, William (January 7, 2007). "Retronym". New York Times. Retrieved 2008-07-25. "The Merriam lexies, always strong on etymology, cite the earliest usage they can find of retronym in this column in 1980, which credited Frank Mankiewicz, then president of National Public Radio, as the coiner. He was especially intrigued by the usage hardcover book, which was originally a plain book until softcover books came along, which were originally called paperback and now have spawned a version the size of a hardcover but with a soft cover trade-named with the retronym trade paperback."
- Safire, William (November 1, 1992). "Retronym Watch". New York Times. Retrieved 2008-07-25.
- Smith, Lyrysa (November 23, 2003). "New words for old times". Wisconsin State Journal. Archived from the original on April 28, 2008. Retrieved March 20, 2011. "Retronyms. We use them, and create them, almost every day, but most people don't know what they are. Don't reach for your dictionary; you won't find it there. Not unless it's the current American Heritage dictionary - the only one, to date, to list the word"
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