Retronym revival

Taco FlavorSometimes words wear out. Those that fall out of fashion get labeled “archaic,” such as forsooth, rapscallion, or thee and thou. But other words get stuck in awkward places by change. People still want to use them, but they don’t quite mean what they did before. Enter the retronym.

Birth of a retronym

Retronyms appear when an existing word is no longer adequate to describe something. The word “analog” is a good example. No one wore an “analog watch” until digital watches came along. The miniature clock on your wrist was just a “watch.” The need to distinguish old from new also gave us analog recordings, analog signals, and analog circuits.

Here are a few more:

  • “Plain” M&M’s (now called “Milk Chocolate”) didn’t exist until 1954, when Peanut M&M’s were first introduced.
  • “Manual typewriters” were “typewriters” until electric ones were invented.
  • “British English” was just “English” until rambunctious colonists started throwing tea overboard and writing their own dictionaries.

Where retronyms come from

Changing technology creates many retronyms. “Acoustic” guitars. “Hard” copies. “Landline” — and later “flip” — phones. The term “broadcast television” was coined in response to cable and satellite television. More recently, e-commerce has given us the “brick-and-mortar” store.

But retronyms can also be used as a branding and marketing tool. One of the most famous examples is “Coca-Cola Classic,” used to re-introduce something close to the original formula after “New Coke” flopped.

Pepsi went one step further a few years ago, using “throwback” as a kind of retro-retronym. These alternate and vintage versions of their products — from soft drinks to chips — appeal both to nostalgia (“This is what it tasted like when we were kids!”) and the modern preference for real sugar over high fructose corn syrup.

Some marketers try to slap retronyms on competitors’ products when pitching new ideas. “Traditional,” “old-school,” “conventional,” and “legacy” are just a few words that can make the competition sound so last year. The same strategy can be reversed to make your own product sound cutting edge, as in “Web 2.0.”

The language it is a-changin’

From a writer’s perspective, retronyms highlight the reality that language is not a fixed or rigid thing. It’s constantly evolving to meet the needs of humanity. And while changes to structure and grammar are often slow and gradual, retronyms show how new words can appear literally overnight — transforming the way we speak, write, and even think.

And that can be a valuable tool to anyone who wants to change the conversation.

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