Wednesday, December 9, 2020

Episode 90: Retronyms Show Notes

 Show notes for Retronyms. Click on "Read More" to see the full notes. 

Bunny Trails: A Word History Podcast

Episode 90: Retronyms

Record Date: December 6, 2020

Air Date: December 9, 2020



Welcome to Bunny Trails, a whimsical adventure of idioms and other turns of phrase. 

I’m Shauna Harrison 


And I’m Dan Pugh

Normally on Bunny Trails, we take an idiom, or other turn of phrase, and try to tell the story from it’s entry into the English language, to how it’s used today.  But this week we’re going to do something just a little bit different. 

Over the summer, we had the opportunity to talk with NYTimes Best Selling Author Danny Klein about his new book, Schmegoogle: Yiddish Words for Modern Times. A few weeks after the interview, Danny asked if we had ever heard of “retronyms”. And we had not. So special thanks to Danny Klein for suggesting this week's show topic all about retronyms!


What is a retronym? I’ll head to our old friend, the Oxford English Dictionary to get us started.

 A neologism created for an existing object or concept because the exact meaning of the original term used for it has become ambiguous (usually as a result of a new development, technological advance, etc.).

And if, like me, you were like. I think I know what a neologism is… but do I? The OED defines it as

A word or phrase which is new to the language; one which is newly coined.

But  back to retronym, so it’s basically a new word created for something that already exists, but because another thing has been invented, the original word is confusing and needs further clarification. And the OED points out that a retronym “typically consists of the original term combined with a modifying word.”

For example, the clocks with hands and numbers on them that you have to look at and decode to see what time it is are know as analog clocks. Because we also have digital clocks, which just show the numbers to represent the time - 10:34. But before digital clocks, the ones with a big hand and a little hand were simply known as clocks. So “analog clock” is a retronym, because it is a new term for an existing object that could be confusing if we didn’t specify. 

So where did retronym come from? Well, since it is a relatively recent word (in the last 40 years or so), we actually have a pretty good idea. And an article in the New York Times on July 27, 1980  y William Safire credits Frank Mankiewicz as creating the term “retronym” to “ old words avoid technological displacement”

And in the Nov 1, 1992 revisiting of the word retronym, the same Mr. Safire says of Mr. Mankiewicz, 

“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” 

Looking to an April 30, 2014 article in Mental Floss by Judith Herman, quote

“In 1980, Frank Mankiewicz—then president of National Public Radio—coined the word "retronym," for a term specifying the original meaning of word after a newer meaning has overtaken it. The term was popularized by New York Times “On Language” columnist William Safire in a 1992 column, where the writer wondered what people would call “regular mail” after the advent of email (snails didn’t come up). “

Although, the use of the term “snail mail” was not created as a retronym, but was instead used as a descriptor for mail that takes longer than expected. Here’s an example from The People’s Voice out of Helena, MT from June 13, 1958:

I’ll also note that I found an example of a boat named “Snail Mail” in the Yazoo City Whig and political register out of Yazoo City, MS dated February 24, 1843. And while it’s difficult to know why the boat was named such, it’s more evidence to add to the list that ‘snail mail’ was at least in some usage prior to becoming a retronym following the growing popularity of emails in the 1990s. 

But this isn’t an episode about the term “snail mail’. I just got lost down that particular bunny trail while researching and found it fascinating.

But back to Safire’s 1992 NYTimes article, 

“We have two-word names now for many things that have been overtaken by events. The classic was acoustic guitar , which replaced guitar when the electric guitar came along; this change quickly led to analog watch , which showed its face when the digital watch threatened its existence. Recently, with the introduction of the laser printer , the plain old printer that used to stand next to your creaky old 286 computer became an impact printer . Now that fancy restaurants are advertising free-range chicken , I don't know how to order the other kind. Domesticated chicken ?)”

I want to give one more example that I found really cool before we head to the break. 

Here is a column in a 1914 edition of Popular Mechanics magazine. 

What’s great about this article is when it talks about “trucks”, it means hand trucks - or a dolly in some parts of the US. And when it mentioned “cars”, it doesn’t mean motor cars, it means railroad cars. And while “hand truck” and “railroad car” existed as terms in 1914 they were not required for descriptive purposes.

A Quick Thank You

This week’s episode is sponsored by our Patrons, with special thanks to our Logomorphology Interns Pat Rowe and Mary Lopez. Your support makes Bunny Trails happen and we couldn’t do it without you!

We are currently reworking our Patreon to make sure it fits with our changing world. We’ll have more information when we start 2021, so stay tuned. But in case you are binging these and it’s already 2021 for you, check us out at Or head on over to our forever home with links to everything we do at

We also want to give a quick shout out to the Sandman Stories Presents podcast. Dustin has been spreading a ton of love for our podcast on the socials, as well as several other great shows, too. So we want to return the favor! Sandman Stories Presents features Dustin reading public domain stories while you drift off to sleep. The latest episode involves two such stories hailing from South African folklore; the first is The Monkey’s Fiddle and the second is The Tiger, The Ram, and The Jackal. Check out Sandman Stories Presents wherever you get your podcasts!


Pop Culture and Modern Examples

I wanted to run down a list of retronyms  from various sources. I want to be clear that I didn’t go into any research for most of these, so there is a chance they might be like “snail mail” with the term being used in other ways prior to becoming a retronym.

These two come to us from the Metal Floss article we reference earlier…

Vinyl disks - The black spinning things that used to be called records needed to be differentiated from compact discs. But as compact discs became known as CDs and are now becoming less common, the term has been shortened from vinyl discs to just vinyl, or sometimes vinyl records. 

Landline came about when the term “phone” could no longer refer to the thing sitting on it’s own little table at grandmas house, or the thing mounted to the kitchen wall with the really long cord.

Railroad Car In 1869, when Mark Twain described in The Innocents Abroad the “peculiarities of French cars,” he wasn’t talking about Citro├źns that turned out to be lemons. At that time, “cars” were train cars. In the 1890s, when the term “car” hitched itself to the automobile, the retronym “railroad car” became necessary.

Offline - Once calculating, data entry, and dating could be done online (while connected to a computer or a network), there had to be a word for doing the same while unplugged.

Here are some I saw on a Wikipedia list that I found interesting:

Classic Doctor Who -  Used to distinguish the original series of the classic show from the 21st century sequel, New Doctor Who. This retronym is used by the BBC when both of these shows air.

Conventional Oven - Before the development of the microwave oven, this term was not used. Now it is commonly found in cooking instructions for prepared foods.

Traditional Chinese character - Used to contract with Simplified Chinese Characters

Manual transmissions in vehicles were just called "transmissions" until the invention of automatic transmissions. Sometimes they are called "standard" transmissions, but that adjective has become a misnomer in the United States since automatic transmissions have become the standard feature for most models today.

Plain M&M's: Plain M&M's candies (now Milk Chocolate) would not have been called that until 1954, when Peanut M&M's were introduced.

Here is a rapid fire list of some I saw from various places:

  • Brick and mortar store (Once online stores became a thing)

  • Visible light (All light was considered visible until we discovered invisible wavelengths in 1800)

  • Live music (All music was live music until recording was invented)

  • Brown rice (which would have been the primary rice until white rice became a mass produced thing in the 19th century)

  • Silent Film (which would have just been “pictures” until the invention of “talkies”, or what we would call movies now) - Note: the term is still not quite right, because while there was no speaking in the movie, it was almost always presented with someone playing music in the theater

  • Disposable battery (cause until we were able to recharge some batteries, all were disposable)

  • Fortnite: Save the World (Was originally just Fortnite, but when Fortnite:Battle Royal came out they needed a way to refer to the original)

  • Coke Classic (This one was coined by Coca Cola after the devastating roll out of New Coke, so when they went back to the previous product they called it Coke Classic for a while to ensure everyone new they were getting the good one)

  • Star Trek The Original Series - The original ones with Bill Shatner as Kirk and Leonard Nimoy as Spock was originally just called Star Trek. But it’s now called TOS to differentiate it from others in the series. And Star Trek now refers to the entire franchise.

And as a bonus, I heard someone tell a joke the other day that was basically “what did we call the electric eel before we knew about electricity?”, which is somewhat cute. But I wondered if electric eel could be a retronym.

Spoiler - it is not. The electrophorus electricus, or electric eel, was discovered in 1766. We’ve known about electricity for millennia - though it wasn’t until the 1600s that English scientist William Gilbert wrote about his study of electricity (which was the property of things like amber to attract lightweight object when rubbed - creating what we know as static electricity) and coined his findings “electricus”, which is New Latin for ‘like amber’, which is from the Greek elektron. This is how we get the word electricity which, according to the OED, makes its first appearance in print in Thomas Browne’s Pseudodoxia Epidemica in 1646. 

As an additional interesting point, we knew about what we would call electric fish since as early as 2750 BCE, where Ancient Egyptians texts described such fish as “Thunderer of the Nile”, believing them to be protectors of the other fish.

1646   Sir T. Browne Pseudodoxia Epidemica ii. i. 51   Crystal will calefy into electricity; that is, a power to attract strawes or light bodies, and convert the needle freely placed. 

But while totally awesome, that is its own bunny trail so let’s get into something that is more related. Like how Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope is a retronym. When the first Star Wars movie came out in 1977, it was just called “Star Wars”. It wasn’t until the theatrical re-release in 1981 that it got the rest of the title - Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope. 

At the 2015 Tribeca Film Festival, George Lucas (creator of Star Wars) told the moderator (Stephen Colbert, of late night US television fame) that he didn’t think the film was going to be successful. The only person who did think the film would be successful was Lucas’ friend and fellow filmmaker Steven Spielberg. From an April 18, 2015 Business Insider article by Kirsten Acuna.

Once Star Wars was realized as a phenomenon, Lucas got to work writing the rest of the series that was already playing out in his head. As an undated article by Jeff Saporito on the site, The Take says, 

“A New Hope feels different from the other two entries in the original trilogy. It is a packaged film, complete with a beginning and an end the way any standalone production would play out. After seeing the unbridled success of the film, Lucas (who already had more material in mind) found it easier to write the next two entries. The Empire Strikes Back (1980) and Return of the Jedi (1983) became the fruit of that labor, the combination of which feels like one cohesive picture broken into two separate acts. Empire, while widely considered the strongest of the three, is the middle of an overall narrative with no real sense of closure. It is the heart of the overall picture that became the original trilogy.,the%20subtitle%20A%20New%20Hope.

So in this case A New Hope is a retronym because it was added in the 1981 re-release to differentiate it from the other two in the original trilogy that would be forthcoming.

And now that I’ve had the opportunity to talk about both Star Trek and Star Wars in the same episode, I suppose it’s time to wrap us up. 

Wrap up...

I want to close with a blog post I found by David Lawrence from March 17, 2017. David wrote on the Family Resources Home Care page an article called, “Retronyms: Another Thing that Makes Me Feel Old”

For me, as I suspect for most people my age (mid-60s), signs that aging is upon us sometimes come out of nowhere. A few years ago, I received an email from a woman who commented on an interesting event both of us had attended and signed her name with “LOL (her name)”. I was taken back because I only knew her slightly and even though I am indeed charming, saying what I thought was “Lots of Love” seemed a bit strange. I apparently had missed the memo about “Laugh Out Loud.” My kids thought it was hilarious.

He continues…

A few weeks ago, I came across another way to feel old – retronyms. A retronym is a term created from an existing word when previously there had been no need for one. 

After describing retronyms and providing some basic examples, David lists his favorites, including a few we hadn’t mentioned here yet.

Here are some of my other favorite retronyms:

Acoustic guitar

Silent film

Cloth diaper

Regular coffee

Prop plane

Analog watch


Snail mail

The last three in particular make me feel old because to me it wasn’t that long ago that there were no digital watches, cell phones, or email.

I loved David’s article because as a person in my 40s I occasionally run into something that has changed now even though I remember the original, like Gameboy - which is now known as Gameboy Classic to differentiate it from all the other GameBoy stuff out there. And that definitely makes me feel old. And sometimes I struggle to keep up with how quickly the world changes around me. But much like David, I’m not complaining about it. Rather, I laugh at how I “missed the memo” on some things and instead keep trying to learn. And that is the deeper meaning of retronyms for me. They represent an opportunity for us to use words to honor the past while pressing forward into a bold, new world. 



That’s about all the time we have for today. Did we miss your favorite retronym? Hit us up on social media to tell us about it. We’re on Twitter and Facebook as @BunnyTrailsPod

And remember you can get the show notes for this episode - which include the citations we used for everything we talked about - on our website, 


Books make great gifts for any occasion, so here are three awesome books by friends of the show that you can add to your shopping list:

  • Your Brain on Facts - by Moxie Labouche (host of the podcast with the same name)

  • Schmegoogle: Yiddish Words for Modern Times - by Daniel Klein

  • Words the Sea Gave Us - by Grace Tierney

We encourage you to buy local whenever possible, but you can find each of these wherever you get your books .

Thanks for joining us. We’ll talk to you again next week. And until then remember... 

Words belong to their users.

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