Would you believe if I told you that you use one “retronym” after another whole day long? You probably wouldn’t because, as a life-time student of English, I also didn’t know for years what a “retronym” was.
The reason I’m sharing this with you is my firm belief about the power of becoming fully conscious of the main tool we use as technical writers – our language (and in this case, English). The more precise we become in expressing our thoughts and labeling our references, the more efficiently we can communicate and eliminate errors.
A RETRONYM is a NOUN preceded by a MODIFIER which can be another noun or an adjective.
Answers-dot-com defines it as “a word or phrase created because an existing term that was once used alone needs to be distinguished from a term referring to a new development, as acoustic guitar in contrast to electric guitar or analog watch in contrast to digital watch.”
Merriam-Webster Dictionary says a retronynm is “a term consisting of a noun and a modifier which specifies the original meaning of the noun <“film camera” is a retronym>.”
“Summer Camp” is a retronym because CAMP (noun) is qualified and modified by another noun, SUMMER. When summer camps became wide-spread, there emerged a need to distinguish this new development from just a “camp” which could be military-camp, work-camp, etc. Thus “summer camp” was born.
Here are some other examples:
Electric Car (to distinguish it from just a plain gas-engine car).
Private School (to distinguish it both from a “school” as such and a “public school”).
Dramatic Conflict (a drama and screenwriting term to distinguish it from just plain “conflict”).
Smart Phone (to distinguish it from a regular non-smart phone).
Question: What about “Happy Holidays”? Do you think that’s a retronym too?
1) Try to come up at least one retronym made up with the following nouns:
a) Service. b) Cycle. c) Formula.
2) What’s the difference between a retronym and a Compound Noun? For example, is “bedroom” a retronym or a compound noun? How about “login” or “weekend”? How can one tell which is which?
(HINT: It’s not always easy to distinguish the two and one can even argue that in many cases it’s not crucial to know the difference either. But it’s also good just to be aware that there’s such an animal called a “retronym” in case it’s mentioned.)
If you can’t come up with anything for these questions shoot me an email and I’ll help you.