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The Daily Need

Word of the day: Retronym

What I learned at work:  During an interview about green design for our Climate Desk podcast, Dwell magazine editor Aaron Britt dropped a word on me I hadn’t heard before: Retronym.  It means, “a word or phrase for something that now has to be specified because it is no longer identifiable in its original state.”  For example, the retronym “acoustic guitar” exists only because there are now electric guitars. Other retronyms include digital clock, sit-down restaurant, black-and-white photo. You get the idea.  Britt believes green design is a retronym because once upon a time homes were built with the environment in mind as opposed to how they are built now.  The invention of the word has been attributed to former NPR president and Robert Kennedy press aid,  Frank Mankiewicz, circa 1980.  Thinking of retronyms is a good time killer and I believe a great Scrabble word if you get lucky.

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  • Leland Robinson

    I’m not sure how “digital clock” is a retronym.

  • Leland Robinson

    I’m not sure how “digital clock” is a retronym.

  • Zakiue

    The only reason you have to specify the type of clock is because there are now multiple types of clocks. So if I’m understanding the definition right, both “analog clock” and “digital clock” are retronyms, just like “fast food restaurant” and “sit-down restaurant” should both be retronyms.

    Either that or “digital clock” is not a retronym.

  • Serogers

    Easy. At one time clocks were manual. Once the digital technology was introduced, we had to differentiate btw manual and digital.

  • Sara

    You’ve never seen a wind-up clock with the little alarm bells on top? They’re very hard to find anymore, but before digital and electric, that’s all there was.

  • AlexisGonzales

    “Day game” – major league baseball didn’t have night games until 1935. And while you’re talking words … um, didn’t you really mean “… former NPR president and Robert Kennedy’s press AIDE, Frank Mankiewicz …”

  • stillapill

    I would think that digital clock is only a retronym because now we have the atomic clock. Before that, the analog clock would have been the only retronym, because if the digital clock was the newest technology on the market, there’s no way it was retro.

  • Joe

    Analog clock would be the retronym, since you can’t assume a clock is analog anymore. Digital Clock isn’t

  • Yoteech2002

    Speaking of words…:-)

  • Yoteech2002

    So digital clock is futurnym and alarm clock is retronym, in my world.. :-)

  • Yoteech2002

    Originally there was nothing called an analog clock. There were just clocks and alarm clocks…(not including sundials, of course). I don’t remember what we called sundials in Rome…I’m not quite that old.:-) We might have a clock in the kitchen that was an electric clock and then a wind-up alarm clock in the bedroom. Later we had electric clocks for the bedroom too…if one was very modern.

  • Yoteech2002

    Interesting to experience language in all its living fluidity, despite some teachers of English and their insistence upon sticking to old rules of usage and grammar. I prefer s/he (rather than the masculine by preference – he) in modern English. I encouraged my science students to use that in the papers written for my class. I know some English teachers objected b/c the old rules say otherwise. Time to update the rules, I say!

  • Mjklein67

    Probably because you’re a science teacher. As an English teacher, I believe we must not only know the rules before we break them, we have to also know how to use them. Then break them. As far as your s/he, I think it’s great. Masculine isn’t necessarily preferred anymore, ‘she’ is just as acceptable; it’s when students use a plural pronoun to replace a singular antecedent that’s frustrating. Additionally, I really hope you’re joking with the ‘b/c’ abbreviation! =)

  • Tracy

    They don’t specify in this article if the retronym has to be the earlier form of the object. The acoustic guitar is the original type while the digital clock is the new type.

    For the teachers, one of my favorite quotes:
    “You can’t break the rules unless you know how to play the game.” — Ricki Lee Jones

    I am not sure if the term “green design” is a retronym in the way that the other phrases are, as green design implies a particular *intent* of using certain materials because of their environmental impact or sustainability. (It may or may not be the cheapest, the longest lasting or the most readily available in the location where the building is placed. eg. cork floors instead of hard wood.) Log cabins and dug-out houses might have been “green” but in those days the plan was just to use materials that were available in that location without spending any money. The intent is not at all the same.

  • Sjbrooks

    I’m so glad I have a word for this now. I was thinking of the term “pant suit” the other day as it specifically refers to a suit for women that includes trousers. I would also add “whole food”. And what about the often used, but very annoying “male nurse” or “lady doctor”?

  • deeble

    Yes- but digital clock are the *new* version. A retronym is supposed to refer to the old version. So “analog clock” is definitely a retronym, but digital clock shouldn’t be. Unless we’re comparing a digital clock to an atomic clock, but atomic clocks aren’t terribly common.