Retronyms: Scourge of the Language or Helpful Tool?

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

Bill Walsh, Writing for
Episode #372

What follows is an excerpt from the late Bill Walsh's book Yes, I Could Care LessBill 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?


About the Author

Bill Walsh, Writing for Grammar Girl
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