Jewish World Review Jan. 16, 2003 / 13 Shevat, 5763

Richard Lederer

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Consumer Reports


Retro-active words


http://www.NewsAndOpinion.com | Have you noticed that a number of simple nouns have recently acquired new adjectives?

What we used to call, simply, "books," for example, we now call hardcover books because of the production of paperback books. What was once simply a guitar is now an acoustic guitar because of the popularity of electric guitars. What was once just soap is now called bar soap since the invention of powdered and liquid soaps.

Frank Mankiewicz, once an aide to Robert Kennedy, invented a term for these new compounds. He called them "retronyms," using the classical word parts retro, "back," and nym, "name or word." A retronym is an adjective-noun pairing generated by a change in the meaning of the noun, usually because of advances in technology. Retronyms, like retrospectives, are backward glances.

When I grew up, there were only Coke, turf and mail. Nowadays, Diet Coke, new Coke, artificial turf, and e-mail (electronic mail) have spawned the retronyms real Coke, Classic Coke, natural turf and snail mail or hard mail. Once there were simply movies. Then movies began to talk, necessitating the retronym silent movies. Then came color movies and the contrasting term black-and-white movies. Once there was television. Along came color television and the retronym black-and-white television. Then came cable television and the retronym on-air television.

Even time, which used to wait for no man, now does because it can be captured on audio and videotape. As a result, we now have something called real time. Once, all we had was reality -- what could be more real? Now we have virtual reality. So what are the retronyms -- unreal time and actual reality?

I remember being astonished when one of my students at St. Paul's School told me that he had missed my class because he has set his alarm for a.m. rather than p.m. On our old clocks, that would have been impossible, but on digital clocks it happens all the time. So what used to be just a clock (or watch) is now an analog, versus a digital, clock.

Other retronyms we use today include:

Coining a retronym for an object is sometimes like waving it a nostalgic goodbye. Retronyms can signal that the thing double-labeled has become outmoded and obsolete, the superseded exception rather than the rule. This is what has happened to black-and-white TV, manual typewriters, treadle sewing machines, reel-to-reel tape recorders, and rotary phones.

Given the dizzying pace of commercial innovations, retronyms are bound to keep on coming. Any day now, we'll have brand new retronyms such as corded telephone, phoneless car, low-definition TV and nonmicrowave oven.

What with phone sex and safe sex, could we one day have the retronym full-participation sex? I hope not. And here are some other retronyms I pray will never come to pass -- graffitiless wall, nonelectronic book, teacher-staffed school, monogamous couple and double-parent family.

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JWR contributor Richard Lederer is a language maven. More than a million of his books, which have been Book-of-the-Month Club and Literary Guild alternate selections, are in print. He is the host of "A Way With Words," on KPBS, San Diego Public Radio, and a regular guest on weekend "All Things Considered." He was awarded the Golden Gavel for 2002 by Toastmasters International. Comment by clicking here.

Up

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10/31/02: Oxymoronology
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10/03/02: Brave New Words
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09/05/02: A celebration of presidential prose
08/29/02: Food for thought
08/22/02: Jest for the pun of it
08/08/02: Hop up to the kangaroo words
08/01/02: A pouchful of synonyms
07/11/02: Poli-Tickle Speeches
06/27/02: Suppository questions
06/20/02: George Orwell is looking at you
06/06/02: Jest for the health of it
05/30/02: It is truly astonishing what havoc students can wreak on the chronicles of the human race
05/16/02: A bilingual pun is twice the fun!
05/09/02: What's in a president's name?
05/03/02: Slang as it is slung
04/25/02: Abstemious words
04/19/02: This Riddle Isn't Letter-Perfect

© 2003, Richard Lederer