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New words for old times
3:23 PM 11/23/03
Lyrysa Smith Albany Times Union

Acoustic guitar. Natural flavor. Hard copy. <

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: <

"Retronym: a word or phrase created because an existing term that was once used alone needs to be distinguished from a term referring to a new development or variation." <

Time was when all guitars were "unplugged," but now we have the retronym "acoustic guitar," thanks to the electric guitar. In its early years, television was ... well, television. <

But with color television came the retronym "black-and-white TV." And with digital television, we now have the retronym "analog TV." And there was a day when all mail came via a postal delivery person. Now we send e-mail and voice mail along with "snail mail," or "hard mail" (a preferred retronym by some to avoid being derogatory toward the carriers.) <

For youngsters, learning about retronyms may serve to clarify some confusing things in their world. Like the young girl who doesn't understand "counterclockwise." Or the little boy who tears up in frustration when confronted with a rotary phone because he has no idea how to use it. And some kids under 12 (or under 30, for that matter) who cannot imagine milk in just one flavor and only one level of fat content. <

Often the digital, cellphone and 1 percent generation knows the retronyms, but not the original items. <

Older folks, who actually grew up when all clocks had moving hands, phones had dials and wires, and milk was just plain old milk, are usually familiar with both the item and its retronym (analog clock, rotary and land-line phones and whole milk). Even so, most retronyms evolve without any of us being fully aware of them (manual transmission, real butter, woodburning fireplace), and we integrate them naturally into our lexicon. <

"Some retronyms are clumsy, and people may question if one is always necessary - a purist will scowl at 'horse polo' as a retronym from 'water polo,'" says Peter Heinegg, a professor of English at Union College in Schenectady, N.Y. "All of them are ad hoc, but retronyms came about because someone needed it. And some do offer a practical solution, like the retronym 'conventional weapons,' it's important to not be misunderstood." <

Credit for the term "retronym" goes to Frank Mankiewicz, a broadcaster and journalist who was at one time Sen. Robert Kennedy's press secretary. His favorite retronyms include "natural turf," for grass, he says, and more recently, "two-parent family." <

The newspaper columnist William Safire has written about retronyms from time to time since 1980 in his articles about language in the New York Times Magazine, and describes Mankiewicz as "the world's leading collector of these coinages." <

Safire recalls in one column how Mankiewicz called him excited to report a new retronym. A colleague told him "she had enjoyed a weekend of 'snow skiing.'" <

Some water skiers, after all, have never seen the original surface for skiing, a mountain of the white stuff, writes Safire. <

"New language acquires authority with time, and if it's used a lot, new words gain a stamp of approval. But the acid rule is: Will it last? I vote thumbs down on the retronym 'eyeball search' versus 'computer search,'" says Heinegg, with a chuckle. He votes thumbs-up on "snail mail," however, which made the most recent Merriam-Webster Dictionary, just released in August. <

Most retronyms are gleaned from high-technology and scientific advances that bring about a modification of an original item. Think of it as a backward glance that signifies progress (film camera, broadcast network, propeller airplane). <

Sometimes, however, it's the hindsight of history that makes a new word necessary. The armed conflict from 1914 to 1918 was known for decades as "The Great War," and "The War to End All Wars." These terms gave way eventually, though, to give us the retronym we use today, "World War I" (although it is still referred to as the Great War in Europe). <

The retronym "Old Testament" was not necessary for hundreds of years, until the New Testament was written. And it wasn't until the Winter Olympics appeared about a century ago that the retronym "Summer Olympics" sprang to life. <

Sometimes the original object is very old, but the retronym quite new. Think of the generations who did not use the retronyms "whole-wheat flour," "dirt road," "cloth diaper" or "genuine leather." <

Cultural changes and new lifestyle trends have created a need for retronyms, too. "Natural childbirth" and "birthparent" deliver a new way to look at the beginning of life. These days, women wear "pantsuits," and sports fans enjoy "day baseball." And a "full-service gas station" that offers "free air" almost seems like something from a bygone era. <

So take a sip of some "regular coffee" with "real cream" and ponder the future - a time when new retronyms in your world may include "low-def TV," a "manually driven car," and, most mind-bending of all, a "natural human being." <

Copyright © 2003 Wisconsin State Journal


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