How Retro! Nine Terms In Everyday Language That Are Actually Retronyms

As people start to go out again after months of hanging out inside in sweatpants, some are reluctantly digging up and pulling on their "hard pants"—that is, pants with a zippered or buttoned waistband, like blue jeans. While the expression "hard pants" predates the pandemic, it's become increasingly popular, and it looks like it might stick around for a while (and that's not the only way the pandemic has changed the way we talk).

The expression "hard pants" is an example of a retronym, or a new term for an existing object or idea to distinguish it from a later development or invention. Before "soft pants" with elastic waistbands (think athleisure) were a mainstream thing, most pants were "hard pants." It was only later that it became necessary to make the distinction. That's how we ended up modifying "pants" to make the expression "hard pants."

Inventions like elastic and changing social circumstances like, well, a pandemic spur changes in the language. We are going to take a look at a number of other retronyms, discuss what they mean, and learn a little bit about where these expressions come from. While some retronyms are a bit tongue-in-cheek like "hard pants," you might be surprised to learn that everyday vocab like "acoustic guitar" is a retronym, too.

acoustic guitar

The guitar has been around for thousands of years in some form. The word guitar itself ultimately comes from ancient Greek kithára, which was an instrument similar to the lyre. For most of human history, all guitars were "unplugged"—there were no electronic components. In the 20th century, as part of the never-ending quest to make the guitar louder, musicians and engineers began experimenting with electronic amplification. And so, the electric guitar was born.

As the electric guitar became increasingly popular, we needed a term to refer to what was once known as simply guitar. Hence the acoustic guitar, "a traditional, unamplified guitar." In music, acoustic is used to denote sound that is not electronically enhanced or modified.

The retronym acoustic guitar began to be used to describe old-school guitars, those without electronic amplification, by the 1960s.

This is a classic example of how a retronym comes to be: a new invention comes along, and all of the sudden we need a new term to refer to the original.

analog watch

These days, just about everyone has a digital watch—which is to say, they check their time on their phones. But there are some (like teachers, deep-sea divers, and watch aficionados) who continue to use analog watches, "a watch that represents time by the position of hands on a dial."

For most of history, dating back to ancient sundials, timepieces used circular dials to show the passage of time. Watches were no different—think about the classic wristwatch with 12 at the top and the numbers running around the edge in a circle.

In the 1920s, some analog watchmakers began to experiment with watches that showed the time using discrete digits rather than the traditional circular watch face. These were known as digital watches. Digital here means "displaying a readout in numerical digits rather than by a pointer or hands on a dial." That's right, the digital in digital watch doesn't refer to the electronic mechanisms, it refers to the watch face.

Throughout the 1970s, electronic digital watches became increasingly popular and cheap. This prompted use of the word analog to describe the original timepiece display. Analog here means "displaying a readout by a pointer or hands on a dial," which is exactly how an analog watch shows time. It is thought that the circular pattern is analogous to the movement of the sun in the sky.

 

Speaking of time, do you know the difference between synchronous and asynchronous?

online

Objects or information becoming digitized, in the sense of "recorded or stored electronic form," is a major reason that we coin retronyms. We have to distinguish between the original or mechanical object and its newer, electronic or digital version. (This sense of digital comes from the fact that electronic information is recorded as a series of digits—1s and 0s.)

One example of these retronyms is online, a term used in computing to mean "operating under the direct control of, or connected to, a main computer." This term was developed to distinguish from the existing offline.

The term off-line was first used to describe trains that were not on a railway. By 1950, offline had been adapted to describe computers that were not networked together. The contrasting term online was coined around the same time to describe the opposite: computers that were networked together. When the internet became popular, the term online exploded to describe any activity that took place on the internet.

brick-and-mortar

A retronym sparked by the growth of the internet, and particularly the growth of online shopping, is brick-and-mortar, meaning "having physical buildings and facilities, as opposed to internet or remote services." Bricks and mortar are traditional materials for buildings.

Before online shopping, all businesses were brick-and-mortar. They had traditional shopfronts. (Think: malls.) With the growth of online businesses, some companies decided to no longer have a physical store and simply do business through the internet.

Around the 1990s, the term brick-and-mortar business came into use to distinguish from these online businesses.

meatspace

A less-elegant expression to distinguish between online and "real" life is the term meatspace, a slang expression for "the real physical word." The expression meatspace was coined in online message boards of the early-1990s. This sort-of gross expression is thought to be a retronym to distinguish real life from cyberspace, "the realm of electronic communication." Cyberspace was coined in the 1980s by sci-fi writer William Gibson.

This is an informal, and somewhat pejorative, slang expression. After all, the use of meat to describe physical reality is a little … icky.

 

How do you define meat anyway? Would you consider fish to be meat?

landline phone

Another example of how new technology has required us to rename old inventions is the retronym landline phone. These days, many people don't even bother to have a landline anymore. But how did we come to use this expression in the first place?

First developed in the mid-1800s, telephones traditionally have relied on wires to connect calls. The cables used to connect telecommunication services were known as "landlines." However, by the 20th century, major advancements had been made in cordless audio communications, including through radios.

Around the 1950s, the expression landline phone began to be used by ham radio enthusiasts and in military contexts. It was necessary to make clear that they were communicating using the traditional telephone rather than newer cordless radio technologies. With the massive growth in cell phones, by the 1990s the term landline phone had gone mainstream as a way to describe what is also sometimes known as a home phone.

dairy milk

Human innovation isn't limited to gadgets and gizmos like watches and guitars. We also innovate when it comes to food. One of the best examples of how new foods lead to retronyms is the term dairy milk. Dairy milk is a term to describe traditional milk such as you might get from an animal like a cow or a goat.

You might be wondering, "Doesn't all milk come from an animal?" Well, you're forgetting about plant milks such as soy milk, almond milk, rice milk, and oat milk. While traditionally milk does come from animals, it is also a term used to describe any opaque white or bluish-white liquid. We think of these plant milks as a modern invention, but they have actually been around for hundreds of years.

However, it wasn't until these alternative milk products went commercially mainstream in the 21st century that the retronym dairy milk really took off. Dairy is used here to indicate that it is milk that comes from an animal, rather than a plant.

hot chocolate

Another drink-related retronym is hot chocolate. That's right, the delicious wintertime drink was once just known simply as chocolate.

For most of human history, chocolate was consumed in liquid form, as a drink. In Europe, this was a warm liquid made of sugar or honey and cocoa. However, beginning in the 1800s, chemists developed powdered chocolate and, later, chocolate bars.

In 1868, Cadbury began to sell bars of chocolate commercially in England. Chocolate bars took off and came to be known as simply "chocolate." In contrast, the more traditional liquid chocolate came to be known as hot chocolate. By the end of the 19th century, the expression hot chocolate was on the rise.

Hot chocolate is today thought of as melted bar chocolate. However, the term is also used to mean hot cocoa, as in a hot drink made with powdered chocolate.

slow food

Sometimes, retronyms are deliberately created to draw attention to old technologies or ways of life. That's the case with the expression slow food. Slow food refers to "food that has been prepared with care, using high-quality local and seasonal ingredients."

As you may have guessed, the expression slow food was created to contrast the cuisine with fast food, or commercial, standardized food that can be prepared quickly. Fast food dates to America in the 1960s, and the expression and practice was soon exported around the world. This sparked concern from activists about the effects of fast food on health, the economy, and the environment.

To protest the growth of fast food, slow food was created in Italy in the 1980s. Slow food is what would once have simply been known as "food," or meals individually created using local or regional ingredients.

As technology and society continues to evolve, you can expect more retronyms to pop up. Things you take as standard or ordinary will one day be modified and need clarification. For example, as electric cars become the norm, we may start to refer to traditional automobiles as "gas cars" more routinely. Or, if augmented reality technology becomes more accessible we might need a new term for normal existence  ... "standard reality," maybe?

Sure, it might sound like something out of science fiction, but these changes happen faster than you might expect. After all, whether its food or phones, we've seen there's nothing us humans won't try to improve upon.

 

Now let's take a look at another fascinating collection of words: contranyms! Do you know what they are and how many you have been using?