Retronyms: Scourge of the Language or Helpful Tool?

Would you care for some white milk with your black raisins?

Bill Walsh, read by Mignon Fogarty,
June 20, 2013
Episode #372

Page 3 of 3

The Ugly: Anti-Retronyms

And that’s the catch. Just when retronyms have you rolling your eyes, along comes the opposite: a hasty truncation. A less-than-informed wine snob declares “I hate zinfandel,” but he means white zinfandel. A little girl with a sweet tooth demands custard, but she doesn’t mean gelatinous yellow goop; she means the soft ice cream sometimes made with that goop. Frozen custard. This year a young tennis star, apparently unfamiliar with the concept of failing eyesight, informed her Twitter followers that the bright sunshine explained why she was pictured wearing glasses.

Retronyms Waiting to Happen

Speaking of Twitter, we probably need a retronym for the older meaning of tweet. Bird tweet? In another technology development, the cellphone camera has some people referring to regular old camera-cameras as independent cameras. And have we decided what to call a non-non-iron shirt?

A Slash Is Just a Slash

Sensible people frown on the term forward slash -- “If I meant backslash, I would have said backslash!” -- but get ready to frown some more as you hear slashes, the regular, forward kind, commonly referred to as backslashes. Backslashes don’t exist in Web addresses, and so all those TV and radio ads inviting you to go to something-dot-com-backslash-something are just plain wrong. When you’re giving a Web address, just say slash. The new term backslash begat the retronym forward slash and the former got entangled with the latter in sort of a retronymic Moebius strip.

Gin martini, anyone?

Bill Walsh is a copy editor at The Washington Post and author of the new book Yes, I Could Care Less. You can find him at The Slot (www.theslot.com) or on Twitter as @TheSlot.


A lawyer named Michael wrote in to say that "web signature" is becoming common now that we need to distinguish a "regular" signature from an electronic signature.

A commenter named Robbert noted that he's Dutch and "hockey" means grass hockey (ice hockey is a rarity), but his girlfriend is Slovak and "hockey" means ice hockey (grass hockey is a rarity).

A commenter named Julie J. said she's lived in England for eight years and hears people talk about chewing gum, sweet corn, and bread rolls.

A commenter named Elizabeth wrote that in the south, they say "ink pen" as opposed to just pen. She believes it is because "pen" sounds like "pin," so they differentiate between an ink pen and a straight pin.

A commenter named Alex B. notes that in the UK, a pie without a clarifier and no other context is likely to be a savoury dish. (Other differences between British and American English)

According to commenter John B. Jacob "The daiquiri you described with the ingredients listed is a lime daiquiri. A Hemingway daiquiri (aka Papa Doble) is a variation created for the writer by Contstanino Ribailagua, of El Floridita in Havana in 1921. His recipe, along with the aforementioned ingredients, includes grapefruit juice and maraschino liqueur (Luxardo). The sugar is optional. Hemingway ordered it without the sweet stuff."


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