June 16, 2022



A retronym is a word that provides a new name for something to differentiate the original from a more recent form or version. Technology development is often responsible for retronym coinage. For example, the term “acoustic guitar” was coined at the introduction of ”electric guitars” and ”analog watches” were thus named to distinguish them from ”digital watches”. The earliest usage of retronym that is found, is in a column in ”The New York Times” from 1980, which credited Frank Mankiewicz, then president of National Public Radio, as the coiner.

There are many examples in English – we list a few:

Manual typewriters were called ”typewriters” until the introduction of electric typewriters.

Regular coffee is what you drink when not decaffeinated coffee.

Natural language (often referred to as ordinary or human language) is used by humans, in contrast with computer programming languages or constructed languages.

A ”modern” retronym: Snail mail (instead of mail) compared to electronic mail.

Another, by now, classic example is the vinyl record – a type of gramophone record, most popular from the 1950s to the 1990s which then was simply referred to as a record. It was most commonly used for mass-produced recordings of music. Although replaced by digital media such as the compact disc as a mass market music medium, vinyl records continue to be manufactured and sold in the 21st century.

Trivia: The gramophone records used before the vinyl records are called ”78 rpm records” in English, ”Schellackplatten”(from the material Schellack) in German and ”Stenkakor” (stone cakes) in Swedish.


When using an adjective to describe a particular variant of an object, you would call it compositional, as in “acoustic guitar”. A collocation is a sequence of words or terms that co-occur more often than would be expected by chance. Example: ”fast food” versus ”quick food”. Collocations should not be confused with idioms (combination of words in common use that have a figurative meaning like ”pulling my leg”), where meaning is derived, whereas collocations are mostly compositional.

/Olof Lindqvist

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