What follows is an excerpt from the late Bill Walsh’s book Yes, I Could Care Less, Bill was a copy editor at The Washington Post and beloved within the greater copy editing community. The American Copy Editors Society has established a scholarship in his name.
“Look out, Matthew Modine and Charlene Tilton. There are new stars in town. Sky stars!”
That was Kent Brockman, the TV news anchorman on The Simpsons, in an illustration of what we call a retronym. Real people don’t talk about “sky stars,” of course (or Matthew Modine and Charlene Tilton, for that matter), but we do sometimes specify “acoustic guitar” now that there are electric ones and “postal mail” or “snail mail” now that there is e-mail.
The term retronym was coined by Frank Mankiewicz, a former NPR president and Robert Kennedy aide, after he heard a football broadcaster refer to grass as “natural turf.” Once you become attuned to retronyms, you’ll find them everywhere. Snow skiing as opposed to water skiing. A conventional oven as opposed to a microwave oven.
The Good: Adding Clarity and Parallelism
In most cases, retronyms are clarifiers. Sometimes they’re required for full clarity — guitar alone could mean acoustic or electric — but more often they merely emphasize that you don’t mean the variant form. For most people, skiing alone means snow skiing. Mail alone means postal mail. Coffee alone means caffeinated coffee. Slash alone means forward slash. That extra word is sometimes useful for parallelism. “Do you want milk or chocolate milk?” would sound odd, so maybe your mom said “Do you want white milk or chocolate milk?”
Milk: Oh, the Variety!
Food and drink can be a delicious source of retronyms, many of them redundant. Cheese pizza, as though pizza with pepperoni or mushrooms didn’t have cheese. What Mom called white milk used to be vitamin D milk (as if chocolate milk didn’t have vitamin D) or homogenized milk (as if the chocolate kind weren’t homogenized). Today we might refer to whole milk as opposed to milk with some or all of the fat removed. Or cow’s milk as opposed to goat’s milk or mother’s milk. There’s even dairy milk, now that soy and almond and rice beverages are popular alternatives that share the milk name.
Next: Beef Cheeseburger and Cowboy Potato, Anyone?
The Bad: Stating the Obvious
You probably know what a raisin is, but at least one supermarket makes an explicit appeal to the anti-golden-raisin crowd by offering black raisins. You may have ordered chocolate-chip ice cream without fear of ambiguity, but at least one shop caters to the mint haters with a flavor it calls vanilla chocolate chip. You know what pie is, but a place that specializes in meat pies might also offer dessert pies. And it gets even more absurd: If you’re not interested in a turkey burger or a veggie burger, how about a beef cheeseburger? Not a fan of quail eggs or duck eggs? No worries: This dish comes with a hen egg. Don’t want a sweet potato with your steak? You can have a cowboy potato!
Need a drink? Perhaps a gin martini. Cocktail purists aren’t happy about it, but that’s an example of a retronym that exists for good reason, now that the vodka martini and any number of sweet, fruity variations are popular.
Likewise, there’s a good chance you don’t know the original recipe for a daiquiri. If you’re at a blackjack table in Las Vegas and say that word, you’ll get a slushy frozen strawberry rum drink with whipped cream. Establishments catering to purists are increasingly marketing the original version — rum, lime juice, and sugar — as a Hemingway daiquiri. If that yields a blank stare, you may want to help your server by asking for a lime daiquiri.
Read More: Why Is It Called a Daiquiri?
Zinfandel is a red wine, but if you order a glass of zinfandel at a restaurant more accustomed to serving non-Hemingway daiquiris, there’s a good chance you’ll get that orange liquid known as white zinfandel, and so it’s a good idea to employ the retronym red zinfandel.
Next: Do We Need “Bird Tweet” and “Frozen Custard”?
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?
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.”
[Added by the editor on 5/10/2014: Tobacco cigarette is a retronym that has emerged now that electronic cigarettes have become popular. Hat tip to World Wide Words.]