Throwback Thesaurus – Retronyms and How Technology Changes Our Vocabulary

“When I was your age, a rotary phone was just the ‘phone’,” my mom told me many years ago. That’s just one small example of a linguistic phenomenon called “retronyms”: words and terms invented to reflect technological advances, and retroactively distinguish old technology from new. Acoustic guitar, black and white television, landline phone, dial-up internet, brick-and-mortar store, the list goes on. If “rotary phone” is anything to go by, a retronym is often a sure sign that a form of technology has become obsolete, and what’s taken its place is the new normal.

But what I find especially interesting isn’t the end result when the new technology is the default — TV vs. black and white TV, for instance — but that in-between stage: color vs. black and white, digital vs. analog, et cetera. That moment before a new piece of technology’s qualifiers (color, electric, digital, e-whatever) disappear marks when two forms of tech exist side-by-side and must jockey for position in our lives and culture. Sometimes, they can peacefully coexist, as the need for the old technology is still there: acoustic vs. electric guitar, for example. Other times, the new technology’s qualifier slowly fades from the public lexicon. Cellphone comes to mind. At least among my peers, who often don’t even bother to install landlines, a cellphone is just one’s phone. Even still, the qualifier cell/mobile is still necessary in many contexts, because landline phones (your work phone and your home phone) are still a part of our technological landscape, just in a greatly reduced capacity.

In an age where it seems like newfangled tech is announced or launched every week, we’re seeing this in-between stage more and more. Smart/streaming TV vs. cable TV, e-cigs vs. nicotine cigarettes, CG vs. traditional animation. Some qualifiers will be here to stay, but how long until smart TV is just TV, and cable TV is some old relic from your grandparents’ younger days? How long until “electronic boarding pass” is just your plain old boarding pass? Maybe in a few years, we’ll be sitting back in our sleek Teslas giggling at the old fuddy-duddies in their human-driven cars.

These lexical transitions reveal a lot about how we use language. When we drop qualifiers for new technology, it indicates changes to what we perceive as “normal” or obvious enough to be left unspoken. I don’t need to tell the saleswoman at Best Buy that I want a color TV, for instance, because I can easily and rightly assume that color comes standard on every TV available. It is no longer worth noting that a television has color.

I’ve cautioned against over-extension of the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis — the idea that language dictates thought, culture, and mindsets — but the emergence and evolution of retronyms is a great example of the way we use and curate language to define what is normal, commonplace, or taken-for-granted in our everyday lives, and what is abnormal or unexpected. Furthermore, retronyms are a great example of how quickly we can adapt language to changing circumstances and contexts. If we think of language as a tool for interpreting and navigating our world, that we can bolt on or take off certain lexical items as needed makes it a very useful tool indeed, and makes us highly adept and innovative tool-users.




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