Saturday, October 29, 2011

a little look at language: hardcover book, and other retronyms

I am, of course, reading some more "On Language" columns. I'm still over thirty years behind in my reading.

Just as I do with blogs, I am reading through the archives of this column, working my way up to the most recent entries. I'm loving this because it's funny to see how words and uses of language I don't give any thought to were once so debated. I also like to see what we are still arguing about thirty years later.*

Anyhow, I just learned a new term: retronym. I hadn't heard that before, but I know the concept. Retronyms are terms to indicate something that already exists but now also exists in a newer version; the new term is crafted to avoid confusion. William Safire, in "On Language: Retronyms," writes of the creation of "acoustic guitar" to distinguish from the newer electric guitars and of "natural turf" (i.e. grass) to distinguish from artificial turf (i.e. astroturf). Safire goes on: "Other retronyms include 'hard-cover book,' which was merely a 'book' before the soft-cover book came along; 'manual transmission,' which used to be the 'gearshift' before 'automatic transmission' became popular;...."

I also found this list of retronyms. (What the heck is Bush 41? Bush, Sr.? Or, H.W.? Basically an indication that we're referring to the 41st, not the 43rd president?)

And, here's a Daily Writing Tips article on retronyms. You don't need to buy a subscription to check this out. (I can't say the same for the NYT archives.)


* For some reason, I keep thinking of the older (definitely not very old) cookbooks I have that say something like, "If you have a microwave oven, you can use it to melt the butter" or what-have-you. (Hey! Microwave oven -- another retronym!)


Kat said...

I love this! What a great conversation.

v said...

I'm pretty fascinated with English and it's evolution. I'd like to learn and know more about it. Another thing to add to my to-do list (but a good thing).