Have you ever heard of a retronym?

You likely haven’t — it’s one of those trivial wrinkles of the English language that only dorks like me care about. But it’s fun, nonetheless, so here goes.

The great publication Mental Floss defines a retronym as: “a term specifying the original meaning of a word after a newer meaning has overtaken it.”

That sounds confusing, but once I give some examples you’ll know exactly how it works.

For the first 100 years after baseball was invented, the game was played on grass. An MLB team was founded in Houston in the early 1960s, and it became clear an indoor stadium would be needed to survive the heat.

Following issues with the ceiling and the field’s grass, the team installed newly-invented artificial grass — you know it as AstroTurf, named after the baseball team it was supplied for.

Except ... with artificial grass now invented, it was not enough to simply use the word “grass” anymore, at least in terms of playing surfaces. Teams in ordinary, outdoor stadiums therefore played on ”natural grass.”

No one in the history of mankind had to say “natural grass” up until AstroTurf was invented. Grass was grass, but not anymore.

Natural grass is a retronym.

Think about guitars and pianos. Back in Mozart’s day, a piano was merely a piano.

Then came the invention of electric guitars and electric pianos ...

So, we now call the originals acoustic guitars and pianos. Acoustic guitar is a retronym.

A few weeks ago, we posted a story to The Messenger’s Facebook page. Some dialogue ensued in the comment section, leading one reader to say to another: “the story is in the actual paper.

This newspaper began publishing over 170 years ago. For most of that time, the paper was the paper, that’s it. Now, though, we have an “e-edition” online (along with individual stories getting posted to our website).

Thus created the retronym “actual paper” to refer to the printed product. Sheesh.

The concept of a retronym was first coined by Frank Mankiewicz, the former president of National Public Radio. A few other examples I enjoy:

  • Analog clock
  • Any person whose name adds “Senior” after they have a child
  • Plain M&M’s
  • Regular coffee (vs. decaf)
  • Corn on the cob
  • Pipe organ
  • Silent film

What retronyms can you come up with?

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