A campus-minister friend told me about some students who were talking excitedly about an 80s-themed party they had attended. “Did you have 80s parties when you were in college?” one of them asked.
“Yeah,” he said. “We called them parties.”
A similar dynamic is at work in the category of words called retronyms. Here’s the definition of retronym from Merriam-Webster:
a term (such as analog watch, film camera, or snail mail) that is newly created and adopted to distinguish the original or older version, form, or example of something (such as a product) from other, more recent versions, forms, or examples
We’ve seen a lot of new retronyms as we have moved more of our lives into the digital world and out of the analog world—in-person meeting, landline, brick-and-mortar store.Analog world, of course, is a retronym…it’s what we used to call the world. In fact, anything prefaced with analog will be a retronym.
Retronyms didn’t start with the digital revolution. Technological advances of all sorts have generated retronyms. The term silent film didn’t exist until talkies became the norm. (I suspect there’s also a name for the linguistic process by which a neologism like talkies falls out of use as the new technology it describes becomes the norm…now that all movies are talkies, we don’t call them talkies. If you know a name for that process, send me an email!) The term acoustic guitar came along only after the electric guitar came along. There was no such term as hardback book until paperback books were invented.
There was a time when the devices we now known as hand trucks were just called trucks—until pickup trucks and panel trucks stole all their glory. I’d be interested to know…in British English, where trucks are called lorries, are hand trucks still called trucks? I’d love to hear from you, Brits.
Speaking of British English, that’s a retronym too. For many centuries, British English was just English. Sorry, Brits. That’s what you get for spreading your language all over the world.
Some retronyms come not from technological change so much as cultural or societal change. The retronym two-parent family emerged in the 1970s and grew through the 1980s and 1990s as one-parent families became more common. In 1960, the term sit-down restaurant would have made no sense. How else was anybody supposed to eat in a restaurant? The term sit-down restaurant entered the language as drive-thrus grew in popularity.
Then there are retronyms that arise because of historical events. Before World War II there was no World War I (it was The Great War). Similar circumstances gave us the First Peloponnesian War, the First Dutch-Anglo War, and every First Farewell Tour by aging rockers who can’t quite bring themselves to give it up.
In researching for this letter, I ran across the term backronym. A backronym is an acronym that is made up to match up with an already-existing word. For example, the AMBER emergency alert system in the US was named in memory of a girl named Amber Hagerman. At some point, the name Amber got turned into an acronym, America’s Missing: Broadcast Emergency Response.
I was surprised to learn that the APGAR test given to newborn babies (Appearance, Pulse, Grimace, Activity and Respiration) was originally named for Dr. Virginia Apgar. That backronym worked out quite well.
The PATRIOT Act (Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obsruct Terrorism) is a good example of the now-common practice of giving a pieces of legislation a name that is a backronym from the get-go. See also the DREAM Act (Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors) and the CARES Act (the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act).
One is reminded of this exchange from the first episode of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.:
Maria Hill: What does S.H.I.E.L.D. stand for, Agent Ward?
Grant Ward: Strategic Homeland Intervention, Enforcement and Logistics Division.
Maria Hill: And what does that mean to you?
Grant Ward: It means someone really wanted our initials to spell out “shield.”
Occasionally a backronym gets mixed up in a false etymology. I have long heard (and repeated) that the word posh was an acronym for Port Out, Starboard Home. The idea was that on a ship sailing from Great Britain to India, the most expensive and desirable berths were those most protected from the afternoon sun—which would be on the port side going out from Great Britain and on the starboard side coming back to Great Britain. Apparently that’s not true. The derivation of the word posh is unclear, but Port Out, Starboard Home is a backronym, not the origin of the term. Which was a sadness for me…
And finally, just for fun, I close with the phenomenon known as the recursive acronym. This is an acronym in which one of the letters of the acronym stands for the acronym itself, as in this Dilbert Cartoon:
Perhaps the most ludicrous recursive acronym I’ve ever run across is from this motivational video from singer-songwriter/personal trainer Dave Barnes. Who can overcome personal limitations? YOU that’s who. And what does YOU stand for?
Now you see what makes Dave Barnes is such a great songwriter. (And also a hilarious podcast guest.)