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What is a Retronym?

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  • Written By: Mary McMahon
  • Edited By: Bronwyn Harris
  • Last Modified Date: 11 November 2016
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A retronym is a new word or clarifying modifier which arises in response to changes in a language. The best way to explain the retronym is to provide an example. The widespread conflict which occurred between 1914-1918 is generally known as the First World War, but this was not always the case. It was originally the “Great War,” but after another period of major conflict broke out in the 1940s, people started calling the Great War the First World War, to differentiate it from the imaginatively named Second World War. Another example of a retronym is the term “analog clock,” which arose in response to the creation of the digital clock.

The word comes from the Latin retro, for “behind,” and the Greek -onym, for “name.” People may refer to a retronym as a “back formation,” referring to the way in which it was coined. Sometimes it can be hard to tell when a word is a retronym or not, thanks to the shifting nature of language, and in other instances it is easy to identify a retronym.

The term “retronym” is believed to have been coined by Frank Mankiewicz, but prominent New York Times journalist William Safire is responsible for bringing it to popular attention in the 1980s. By the 1990s, several dictionaries included “retronym.” Considering the rapid evolution which languages undergo, it makes sense to have a word to describe neologisms used to describe old things.

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The use of a retronym arises when the old term for something becomes outdated, not specific enough, or simply wrong, thanks to the evolution of language. Many retronyms consists of clarifiers which are designed to differentiate old and new forms of something, like acoustic and electric guitars, or bar and liquid soap. Using retronyms can ensure that people understand what you are talking about, avoiding potential confusion.

People sometimes also use the term to describe backronyms, acronyms which are derived in the reverse of the usual order. For example, AIDS is a conventional acronym, which stands for Acquired Immunodeficiency Syndrome, and it was derived from the name of the disease. The “HELP” in Project HELP, on the other hand, is a backronym which was formed by picking a desired acronym and then creating an organization name tailored to meet it. Many companies use backronyms to create specific associations with products and services.

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