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retronym (RE-truh-nim) noun

An adjective-noun pairing generated by a change in the meaning of the noun, usually because of advances in technology.

When I grew up, there were only Coke, turf and mail. Nowadays, Diet Coke, new Coke, artificial turf, and email (electronic mail) have spawned the retronyms real Coke, Classic Coke, natural turf, and snailmail or hard mail. Once there were simply movies. Then movies began to talk, necessitating the retronym silent movies. Then came color movies and the contrasting term black-and-white movies. Once there was television. Along came color television and the retronym black-and-white television. Then came cable television and the retronym on-air television.

And here are some other retronyms I pray will never come to pass -- graffitiless wall, nonelectronic book, teacher-staffed school, monogamous couple, and double-parent family.

Last week's theme was eponyms, defined in some lexica as the names of people, real (e.g. Amelia Jenks Bloomer) and imaginary (e.g. Gargantua) real and imaginary, from which are derived lower-case words, and in other lexica as the words themselves that descend from these names.

Eponym is but one of a battalion of words cobbled from -onym, a Greek root that means "word" or "name". Other examples of Nym include acronym, anonymous, antonym, homonym, patronymic, pseudonym, and synonym and the less familiar anatonym, bacronym, charactonym, consonym, domunym, euonym, exonym, malonym, meronym, metonymy, and tautonym.

This week's sequence will examine some of the more outré words in this nym-ble family. -Richard Lederer

(This week's guest wordsmith, Richard Lederer, is a bestselling author of books on language and humor. He will make a live appearance in our chat room on December 13, 2001 at Wordsmith Chat.


Language exerts hidden power, like a moon on the tides. -Rita Mae Brown, writer (b. 1944)

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