A retronym is a type of neologism that provides a new name for an object or concept to differentiate the original form or version of it from a more recent form or version. The original name is most often augmented with an adjective (rather than being completely displaced) to account for later developments of the object or concept itself. Much retronymy is driven by advances in technology. Examples of retronyms are "acoustic guitar" (coined when electric guitars appeared), and analog watch
Analog watch
Analogue watch is an example of a retronym. It was coined to distinguish analogue watches, which had simply been called "watches", from newer digital watches; see watch and clock....

 to distinguish from a digital watch.
Often, at first, the new version of an object is given a special name to distinguish it from the established version. If, however, the new version becomes the standard, it loses the part of its name that identifies it as new or different, and a retronym is coined for the original. The earliest razors with encased blades were called "safety razors" to distinguish them from what were then just called "razors." But the safety razor has since become the standard and the original razor is now called a "straight," "open," or "cut-throat" razor. Similarly, the first bicycles with two wheels of equal size were called "safety bicycles" because they were easier to handle than the then-dominant style that had one large wheel and one small wheel, which then became known as an "ordinary" bicycle. Now, most "bicycles" are expected to have two equally-sized wheels, and the other type has been re-named "penny-farthing" or "high-wheeler" bicycle. A person reading newspapers, books, or other material from past eras must be aware of these changes because, while technology changes, words for that technology tend to be conserved.

Evolution in usage

The original use of an adjective to describe a particular variant of an object is typically purely compositional, as in "acoustic guitar
Acoustic guitar
An acoustic guitar is a guitar that uses only an acoustic sound board. The air in this cavity resonates with the vibrational modes of the string and at low frequencies, which depend on the size of the box, the chamber acts like a Helmholtz resonator, increasing or decreasing the volume of the sound...

", but gradually over time it becomes a collocation
In corpus linguistics, collocation defines a sequence of words or terms that co-occur more often than would be expected by chance. In phraseology, collocation is a sub-type of phraseme. An example of a phraseological collocation is the expression strong tea...

, a name or technical term in its own right with additional nuances, greater specificity and general but implicit agreement on it as the appropriate term versus alternate descriptions of the original type. The main exceptions to this have to do with ownership, such as a trademark
A trademark, trade mark, or trade-mark is a distinctive sign or indicator used by an individual, business organization, or other legal entity to identify that the products or services to consumers with which the trademark appears originate from a unique source, and to distinguish its products or...

 owner adding words to an existing product name or brand
The American Marketing Association defines a brand as a "Name, term, design, symbol, or any other feature that identifies one seller's good or service as distinct from those of other sellers."...

 to create differentiated names for new variants of a product, which thus enjoy the status of a name immediately upon release of the product range.

Word history

The term retronym was coined by Frank Mankiewicz
Frank Mankiewicz
Frank Fabian Mankiewicz II is an American journalist.-Biography:He grew up in Beverly Hills, California. His father, screenwriter Herman Mankiewicz, co-wrote Citizen Kane, and his uncle, Joseph Mankiewicz, directed such films as All About Eve and Cleopatra.Mankiewicz received a B.A...

 in 1980 and popularized by William Safire
William Safire
William Lewis Safire was an American author, columnist, journalist and presidential speechwriter....

 in The New York Times
The New York Times
The New York Times is an American daily newspaper founded and continuously published in New York City since 1851. The New York Times has won 106 Pulitzer Prizes, the most of any news organization...


In 2000, The American Heritage Dictionary
The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language
The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language is an American dictionary of the English language published by Boston publisher Houghton Mifflin, the first edition of which appeared in 1969...

(4th edition) became the first major dictionary to include the word retronym.

See also

  • List of retronyms, more examples
  • Contrastive focus reduplication
  • -onym
    The suffix onym, in English and other languages, means "word, name," and words ending in onym refer to a specified kind of name or word, most of which are classical compounds. For example, an acronym is a word formed from the initial letter or letters of each of the successive parts or major parts...

  • Retroactive continuity
  • Retroactive nomenclature
    Retroactive nomenclature
    Retroactive nomenclature is the telling of the earlier history of a person, place or thing while referring to said person, place or thing by a name that came into use at a later date.-Names:...

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