A retronym is a newer name for an existing thing that helps differentiate the original form from a more recent one. It is thus a word or phrase created to avoid confusion between older and newer types, whereas previously (before there were more than one type) no clarification was required.[1][2]

Advances in technology are often responsible for the coinage of retronyms. For example, the term acoustic guitar was coined with the advent of electric guitars;[3] analog watches were renamed to distinguish them from digital watches once the latter were invented;[4] "push bike" was created to distinguish from motorbike and motorized bicycles; and finally "feature phone" was also coined behind smartphones.


The term retronym, a neologism composed of the combining forms retro- (from Latin retro,[5] "before") + -nym (from Greek ónoma, "name"), was coined by Frank Mankiewicz in 1980 and popularized by William Safire in The New York Times Magazine.[3][4]

In 2000 The American Heritage Dictionary (4th edition) became the first major dictionary to include the word retronym.[6]


Main article: List of retronyms

This column about "trucks and cars" from Popular Mechanics in 1914 was written when the word truck did not necessarily connote a motor truck or the word car a motor car. The same things today would most likely be respectively called hand trucks and railroad cars, terms that existed in 1914 but were not yet required for clarity.

The global war of the early 20th Century from 1914 to 1918 was referred to at the time as the "Great War". However, after World War II (also known as the Second World War) erupted in 1939, the Great War was gradually more commonly referred to instead as World War I or the First World War.

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.[7] Since the end of the 19th century, most bicycles have been expected to have two equal-sized wheels, and the other type has been renamed "penny-farthing" or "high-wheeler" bicycle.[8]

The Atari Video Computer System platform was rebranded the "Atari 2600" (after its product code, CX-2600) in 1982 following the launch of its successor, the Atari 5200, and all hardware and software related to the platform were released under this new branding from that point on. Prior to that time, Atari often used the initialism "VCS" in official literature and other media, but colloquially the Video Computer System was often simply called "the Atari."[9]

The first film in the Star Wars franchise, Star Wars, was released in 1977, but was renamed Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope in 1981, one year after the sequel The Empire Strikes Back was released.[10]

In the 1990s when the Internet became widely popular and email accounts' instant delivery common, mail carried by the postal service came to be called "snail mail" for its slower delivery and email sometimes just "mail."[citation needed]

See also


  1. ^ "Retronym - Definition of Retronym by Merriam-Webster". Merriam-Webster. Retrieved 2020-10-26.
  2. ^ "Retronym". Webster's Online Dictionary. Archived from the original on 2013-01-20. 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".
  3. ^ a b Safire, William (January 7, 2007). "Retronym". New York Times Magazine. Retrieved 2015-08-01. 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.
  4. ^ a b Safire, William (November 1, 1992). "Retronym Watch". New York Times Magazine. Retrieved 2008-07-25.
  5. ^ "retro - Wiktionary". en.wiktionary.org. Retrieved 2019-10-11.
  6. ^ 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
  7. ^ "The Wheelmen FAQ: What do you call high wheel bicycles?". Retrieved 2009-01-23.
  8. ^ "high-wheeler". Lexico UK English Dictionary. Oxford University Press. Archived from the original on 2020-03-22.
  9. ^ Two usage examples are "Would you like to come over and play my Atari?" and "This Atari has gum in the cartridge slot, so it can't be played."
  10. ^ Britt, Ryan (11 April 2018). "When Did 'Star Wars' Become 'A New Hope?' 37 Years Ago, Everything Changed". Inverse. Retrieved 2020-09-05.