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A retronym is a word created to differentiate between two words, where previously no clarification was required.[1][2]

Advances in technology are often responsible for the coinage of retronyms. For example, the term "acoustic guitar" was coined at the advent of electric guitars[3] and analog watches were thus named to distinguish them from digital watches.[4]



This column about "trucks and cars" from Popular Mechanics in 1914 was written when the word truck did not necessarily connote a motor truck and the word car did not necessarily connote a motor car. The same topics today would most likely be talked about with the terms hand trucks and railroad cars. Those terms existed in 1914 as well, but they were not required for clarity, as they would be today.

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.[5] Since the end of the 19th century, most bicycles have been expected to have two equal sized wheels, and the other type has been renamed "penny-farthing" or "high-wheeler" bicycle.[6]

Word historyEdit

The term retronym, a neologism, was coined by Frank Mankiewicz in 1980 and popularized by William Safire in The New York Times Magazine.[3][3][4]

In 2000 The American Heritage Dictionary (4th edition) became the first major dictionary to include the word retronym.[7]

See alsoEdit


  1. ^
  2. ^ "Retronym". Webster's Online Dictionary. Retrieved 2010-03-10. A word introduced because an existing term has become inadequate; "Nobody ever heard of analog clocks until digital clocks became common, so 'analog clock' is a retronym". Wordnet. 
  3. ^ a b c Safire, William (January 7, 2007). "Retronym". New York Times Magazine. Retrieved 2015-08-01. The Merriam lexies, always strong on etymology, cite the earliest usage they can find of retronym in this column in 1980, which credited Frank Mankiewicz, then president of National Public Radio, as the coiner. He was especially intrigued by the usage hardcover book, which was originally a plain book until softcover books came along, which were originally called paperback and now have spawned a version the size of a hardcover but with a soft cover trade-named with the retronym trade paperback. 
  4. ^ a b Safire, William (November 1, 1992). "Retronym Watch". New York Times Magazine. Retrieved 2008-07-25. 
  5. ^ "The Wheelmen FAQ: What do you call high wheel bicycles?". Retrieved 2009-01-23. 
  6. ^ John Simpson & Edmund Weiner (2008). "Oxford English Dictionary" (Draft, online ed.). Oxford University Press. 
  7. ^ Smith, Lyrysa (November 23, 2003). "New words for old times". Wisconsin State Journal. Archived from the original on April 28, 2008. Retrieved March 20, 2011. 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