Summer Weather Upon Us? Bring On the Retronyms!

07/24/2019

While many consider summer their favorite season, I am not those people. Summer is an unbearable time for writers: editors and agents seem to disappear to some island for two months (probably because their therapists are AWOL as well); there’s no colorful foliage or crisp air to inspire us, and the FOMO is awful while we’re at our desks writing and beach photos slide through our social media feeds. 

illustration of author

This summer, I suppose I’ll give in and order a few iced coffees…’ Illustration by Josh Quick

I much prefer the electricity of fall and winter air (there’s a reason that cold “snaps” while heat merely waves), the possibility of a sparkling blanket of snow to cover the mistakes of the day before, and any excuse to slide under mounds of covers. Then there are the admittedly minor annoyances of summer, such as the fact that when I head into a java joint to order coffee, they often serve it iced without my asking.

I was griping about this last one recently to friends. They asked why I don’t simply specify that I want “hot coffee.” I must be a grumpy curmudgeon because I said I resent even having to use the retronym.

Not everyone knew the term, so at least I had hit on an unexpected delight of summerthe chance to talk about language, and about all the retronyms we use during the summer months.

The term “retronym,” according to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, was coined by Frank Mankiewicz, a journalist, former president of NPR, and former press aide to Sen. Robert Kennedy. He was first quoted as collecting retronyms in William Safire’s “On Language” newspaper column in 1980, then appeared in several subsequent Safire columns to discuss phrases such as “analog watch” and “hardcover book.” (Before that, watches were assumed to be analog, and decades earlier, books hardcover.) 

Merriam-Webster officially defines retronym as “a term (such as an analog watch or snail mail) that is newly created and adopted to distinguish the original or older version of something from other, more recent versions, forms, or examples.”

I first learned of the term from a Safire column myself in the 1980s when I, a young hopeful writer, would spread my parents’ “print newspaper” (a retronym if ever there was one) on the living room rug to learn something new. I avidly read another language-studying columnist as well, James J. Kilpatrick (for some reason, both language mavens also happened to be conservative columnists; perhaps the GOP was the party of grammar back then). Kilpatrick passed away in 2010, a year after Safire. Now there are fewer print newspapers and fewer columnists to write about the peculiarities of the written wordbut I’m still intrigued by retronyms.

This summer, many of us are using our phones to take vacation photos. But if you’re more serious and prefer separate equipment, you can shop online at BestBuy for what they refer to on their website as a “digital camera,” “instant film camera,” or “CLASSIC instant film camera.” 

Yet we’ve recently started dropping all modifiers when we talk about our “phones,” no longer needing to say “cell phone,” “portable phone,” “cordless phone,” or even “smartphone.” The retronym “landline” is still in use even though most landlines are not. (The word “phone” itself, during the middle of the last century, was sometimes written with an apostrophe to indicate an abbreviation for “telephone.”) 

Last summer I employed the retronym “snail mail” when I told friends I wanted to bring it back by sending them handwritten postcards over July 4. At the post office, I only had to request a stamp rather than specify a “sticker stamp” or “lick-and-stick” varietythe latter officially discontinued after a 2015 USPS announcement. (The century-old lickable stamps are apparently so forgettable that someone posted the question on Quora in 2017, “Did people really used to lick stamps?”) 

An internet search for retronyms turns up a host of terms I didn’t realize fit the bill. Corn on the cob, that favorite summer treat, was apparently just “corn” until the advent of canned corn. Then there are terms I forgot were retronyms since I grew up more aware of their successors: “black and white television,” “cloth diaper,” and “World War I.”

I believe it’s useful to understand the origins of terms and language so we don’t forget the history of technology and art. Devices from a slower time, or their specific designs, may someday prove useful again.

Someday soon, kids won’t understand why we say we “dial” a phone or “ship” a package by truck or plane. There must be a term for verbs that hark back to mechanisms no longer in use, but I can’t recall it: if only Safire and Kilpatrick were around to ask.

This summer, I suppose I’ll give in and order a few iced coffees, while I sit in a café with a print newspaper. Print media is a better conversation piece than one’s phone. Or maybe I’ll partake of that favorite summer pastime, the one Safire wrote about in his last column on retronyms in 2007, two years before he passed away: “The same cultural shift happened in baseball: few fans say night game any more, because most games are played at night, and it’s the former time of play that needs a modifier, which gave rise to the phrase day game.”

I’m glad I don’t have to lick a stamp or lug a bulky camera around on vacation, but I don’t want to forget what came before. Perhaps we need a word for an introvert who delights in retronyms. Does that make me a retrovert? 

Caren Lissner (Guest Blogger)

Caren Lissner’s nerdy first novel, Carrie Pilby, was made into a comedy film on Netflix. Her essays and humor have appeared in the New York Times, Atlantic.com, and Washington Post. She’s currently finishing up a funny memoir and another novel. Find her at carenlissner.com.