Monday, September 26, 2016

Retronyms: Renaming the Past

Languages evolve over time. The words we use change, as does the way we use them. Today I'd like to take a look at retronyms, which are created when we rename something from the past because something newer is now the most common usage of a particular word. Here are a few of the most common reasons for and examples of retronyms.


A reel-to-reel. It was originally known as a tape recorder,
until modern tape recorders came about.
Technology is often responsible for the creation of retronyms. Nowadays almost everything is digital, while previous technology was analogue (without the ue if you're from the US). Before digital technologies, things like clocks and watches were just that, clocks and watches. Now, with the advent of digital clocks and watches, it is common to say an analogue clock or an analogue watch in order to differentiate.

Before email, we simply had mail. Now, you might hear people refer to the sending of letters, cards, and packages as snail mail (as it is much slower than email).

As automatic systems became increasingly common, use of the term manual became necessary. In the UK, most of the cars we drive are manual, but in the US, cars are often automatic, making the distinction necessary.

Landline phones were just phones before we had mobile phones. With smartphones becoming more and more common, are we going to start calling older models dumbphones?


The way we refer to media changes as we develop newer technologies. For example, all films used to have no sound. Once films had sound, those without became silent films or silent movies.

Now that films are almost always in colour, a lot of older films are said to be black and white. Likewise, what was once just animation is often called traditional animation to differentiate it from computer animation.


Anything with a sequel or later numbered version often gets a retronym. For example, the first Star Wars film was originally called just Star Wars. Now it's Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope, as Star Wars became the title for the entire series.

Other examples include video consoles and computers. The original PlayStation is often referred to as the PlayStation 1 or PS1 to differentiate it from the three subsequent versions released, numbered 2, 3, and 4, obviously.


Newer versions of things often mean we call the first version the classic version. Remember Coca-Cola's failed attempt at New Coke? Me neither. However, when the company's new version of Coca-Cola failed, they were forced to bring back the old version, which became Coca-Cola Classic or Classic Coke.

Historical Events

I remember studying World War I and World War II in school. However, for the poor souls living through the first of these tragic events, it was just referred to as The Great War, it only became the First World War after we continued to make the same mistakes again. Let's pray there's never a third.


In the UK, we speak British English. Previously, this was known simply as English until it became necessary to differentiate between British, American, and other varieties of English.

These are just a few examples of retronyms. Which are your favourites? Can you think of any possible future examples, such as non-virtual reality, for example? Tell us your thoughts in the comments below.

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