A lesson on retronyms

Dec 2, 2012

Merriam Websters’s definition of retronym is a term consisting of a noun and a modifier which specifies the original meaning of the noun. “Film camera” is a retronym.

Every Sunday, Michigan Radio’s Rina Miller talks with Anne Curzan a professor of English at the University of Michigan, specializing in linguistics.

In many cases the retronym is formed in response to technological advances.

“We now specify a land line because when you say phone people may assume it’s a cell phone and we need to now, talking about a phone, say a land line,” said Curzan.

“I think these are interesting because often we focus on the new words that are created with technology and we don’t focus on what that then does to the old word,"  she said.

Such as, “hard cover books,” said Miller. Other examples include snail mail, (letters mailed via the post office), and acoustic guitar vs. electric guitar.

“We figure that many people coin them (retronyms) many times, and then they get a kind of momentum. There were probably many people who started saying acoustic guitars and that became the choice for how we refer to it. At some point we decided we were going to talk about tap water instead of regular water," said Curzan.

Share old and new retronyms in the comment section below.