Monday, October 4, 2010

That’s So Retro!

Taken pictures with a film camera lately?  Ridden an upright bicycle?  Or eaten any pork bacon?  These seemingly redundant expressions are known as retronyms—new terms created from existing words in order to distinguish the original referent from a later one, usually as a result of technological advance. The word retronym was coined in the 1980s, from the Latin retro (“backward”) and the Greek onuma (“name”).

Time was when all cameras used film, all bicycles were upright, and all bacon was as porcine as Paddy’s pig.  But then came digital cameras, recumbent bicycles, and turkey bacon, so the qualifier was needed for the originals.  Same thing with acoustic guitars, cloth diapers, snow skis, beef fajitas, analog clocks, hot tea, biological parents, manual typewriters, push mowers, the naked eye, and snail mail. Even real life has been coined to distinguish what we live every day from soap operas or simulated life in a game with avatars.

Wikipedia goes so far as to suggest that George H. W. Bush is a retronym, since he used to be plain George Bush, but felt the need to be distinguished from his son, and you can understand why.

Speaking of “backward,” one is inevitably put in mind of the Bard of Buffalo Bayou, whose middle name is Retro.

            With that indispensable utensil,
            A plain old yellow wood-and-graphite pencil,
            A writer once could make a sentence caper
            Upon a ragged sheet of wood-pulp paper.
            But now a writer has to be astuter
            And utilize a digital computer
            In order to be praised as smart and metro,
            And not condemned as something old and retro.


  1. You might enjoy this earnest and enthusiastic commentary by a Boston Globe writer about a pencil. Though we are members of the Athenaeum, we had no idea that 2800 of these treasures are bringing income to our organization. Unclear how they acquired so many. Was there a black market on Blackwings?

  2. I grew up on Eagle Mirado Chemi-Sealed No. 2 pencils (with an occasional Ticonderoga), so the Blackwing is quite exotic for me.