In the beginning there was the telephone. Each one had the same essential features, including a dial. (For convenience, the word was shortened to the casualism “phone.”) Then came another type: the push-button telephone (often referred to by the trademark “Touch-Tone telephone”). So a neologism had to be developed to refer to the original type with a dial: the “rotary telephone.” That term is an example of a retronym — a word or phrase invented to denote what was originally a genus term but has now become just one more species in a larger genus. Retronyms are usually occasioned by cultural, historical, and technological developments.
Retronyms aren’t a recent phenomenon. When roller skates were invented in the 19th century, it became necessary to refer to the kind used on ice — originally just “skates” — as “ice skates.” When cars began appearing on turn-of-the-century roads, old-style carriages came to be called “horse-drawn carriages” to distinguish them from the new “horseless carriages.” In the 1910s, when sound first came to be synchronized with motion pictures (in “talking movies” or “talkies”), the original type of movie came to be known as the “silent movie.” That is, nobody ever referred to “silent movies” until sound was added to the newer type.
In the mid-20th century, what had been known as the “Great War” became known as “World War I” (it certainly wasn’t called that in its day). A little later, when people started traveling in jet airplanes, the original type was distinguished by the phrase “propeller airplanes.” In the 1970s, when unleaded gasoline was developed, the original gasoline became known as “leaded gasoline.” And in the 1980s, cola drinkers rejected New Coke in favor of what then had to be renamed “Coke Classic.”
The list of retronyms is constantly growing.
William Safire, who first wrote about retronyms in his “On Language” column in The New York Times (27 July 1980), credited Frank Mankiewicz, then president of National Public Radio, with coining the term and collecting the first examples.
For information about the Language-Change Index, click here.
Quotation of the Day: “The reader [is] a reluctant creature of whom not much exertion is to be expected.” Gorham Munson, The Written Word 30 (rev. ed. 1949).