Printable Version
Pronunciation: re-trê-nim Hear it!

Part of Speech: Noun

Meaning: A phrase created to distinguish a term that was once used alone but now must be distinguished from a phrase based on the term that indicates a new development.

Notes: As modern technology makes finer and finer distinctions among the products we use in our lives, the words referring to those products must make finer and finer categorical distinctions. What was simply a book in my youth, today is a hardback book to distinguish it from a paperback book. Hardback book, then, is a retronym. Others include dead tree book (formerly book) vs. e-book, ice skates (formerly skates) vs. roller skates, whole milk (formerly just milk) vs. skim(med) milk.

In Play: This good word is a 'neologism', a new term that has not been accepted by all English dictionaries. Since there is no compelling reason we can see to talk about retronyms (they are just there), we are also not sanguine about its chances of survival. Retronyms themselves are not new, just the term is. Expressions like sighted person vs. blind person, a hearing person vs. a deaf person have been around for ages.

Word History: Today's word was coined recently from the Latin adverb retro "backward" attached to our old friend, Greek onyma "name". Of course, combining a Latin with a Greek word to form a compound is not grammatically kosher. Using a 'nym to refer to a phrase rather than a word is roller skating on thin grammatical ice, too. These weaknesses only reinforce our doubts about the stick-to-it-iveness of today's word. But, then, odder words than this have made it through. (Our chief systems administrator, Andrew Shaffer, is disappointed that this word is often omitted in discussions of 'nyms. We hope today's Good Word raises his spirits—and yours.)

Dr. Goodword,

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