"Name that retronym" Wall Street Journal's Paul Martin enlightens us all.
In a story about the last existing phone booth in the Washington, D.C., area, The Washington Post quoted a 22-year-old as saying he uses only a cell phone and doesn't have a landline at home. The term landline, not yet included in most dictionaries, was unnecessary before the cell phone came along. ... What used to be a plain old telephone line, strung on telephone poles, needed to be distinguished from the pervasive wireless systems used by cell phones, just as rotary telephones once needed to be distinguished from the upstart dial or touch-tone telephones. So landline has come into use as a retronym. The term retronym hasn't yet made it into many dictionaries either, but the third edition of The Oxford English Dictionary (still in progress, available by online subscription only) traces its first usage to 1980 and to public relations man Frank Mankiewicz. Columnist William Safire, who helped popularize the term, has recalled a TV sketch with Sid Caesar portraying a doughboy who proclaims retronymously, "World War I is over!" The Old Testament and numbered years "Before Christ" are similarly in the retronym category. A coustic guitar, coined to distinguish the original guitar from the electric guitar, is often cited in definitions of retronyms. But horse-drawn carriage came earlier. Brick-and-mortar was unneeded to describe a store until e-commerce evolved; nobody asked for tap water in a restaurant until bottled water came along; analog watches were plain watches until digitals appeared; ditto push lawnmowers and cloth diapers (do they still exist?). And The New York Times, reporting on the Consumer Electronics Show in January, talked about the coming obsolescence of picture tube TVs with the upsurge of flat-panel LCD and plasma televisions. Come to think of it, George H. W. Bush is a retronym. He was plain George Bush in the press until George W. Bush ran for high office.
To Paul Martin's examples of retronyms, permit me to add variations on the word mail. Until e-mail came on the scene, mail was mail--as in a stamped envelope working its way through the postal system.
I still have a soft spot in my heart for U.S.P.S., having served on the local Citizens Advisory Council. I stay away from the disparaging term snail mail. I variously ask colleagues to send me their terrestrial mailing addresses or--here in the U.S.--their U.S.P.S. addresses, or plain old shipping address.
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|Publication:||The Newsletter on Newsletters|
|Date:||Mar 31, 2008|
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