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A retronym is a new name for an object or concept to differentiate the original form or version of it from a more recent form or version. The original name is most often augmented with an adjective (rather than being completely displaced) to account for later developments of the object or concept itself. Much retronymy is driven by advances in technology.

Examples of retronyms are "acoustic guitar" (coined when electric guitars appeared), World War I (called the "Great War" or just the "World War" until World War II) and analog watch to distinguish from a digital watch.

The word retronym also refers to an acronym constructed after the fact (a backronym), such as Perl. It is also used to refer to a word formed by reversing the spelling of another word, e.g., mho from ohm.

Word history

The term retronym was coined by Frank Mankiewicz in 1980 and popularized by William Safire in The New York Times.

In 2000, The American Heritage Dictionary (4th edition) became the first major dictionary to include the word retronym.

Examples in various fields

Consumer products

  • The usage of "Classic" may be derived from a famous retronym: the relaunch of Coca-Cola as "Coca-Cola Classic" after the failure of what is now called the New Coke recipe change. When Applemarker began selling new touch-screen variants of its iPod music player, the original form-factor iPod was renamed iPod Classic.
  • In the early 2000s, liquid dish detergent became available as a concentrate, allowing a bottle of the same size to be used to wash more (or dirtier) dishes. The common nomenclature for such products was "ultra" strength (e.g., Ultra-Dawn). Some consumers prefer the original (and generally cheaper) formulas, which in some cases are still available in a re-labeled "non-ultra" form.

Art and literature

The designation of a period or of an artistic or literary style as "classical" is invariably a retronym; such a designation is given only retroactively, when the heritage of the period in question has been judged and found worthy by a later culture.

Careless use of retronyms in historical fiction can cause anachronisms. For example, referring to the "First World War" in a piece set in 1935 would be incorrect — "The Great War" or "14-18 War" were commonly employed descriptions prior to World War II. Anachronistic use of a retronym could also betray a modern document forgery (such as a description of the First Battle of Bull Runmarker before the secondmarker had taken place).

Politics and government

  • U.S. President George H.W. Bush was ubiquitously known, both during and following his administration, as "George Bush" and "President Bush". However, when his son George W. Bush was elected president in 2000, the elder Bush became retroactively known as "George H.W. Bush". The need to distinguish between the two presidents also spawned colloquialisms such as "Bush Senior" and "Bush 41" for George H.W. Bush.
  • Posthumous names awarded in East Asian cultures to royalty after their death can be considered retronyms too, although their birth names will remain unambiguous.


With the introduction of advanced telephone technology (ISDN, ADSL etc.) the originaltelephone service became known as PSTN (Public switched telephone network) or POTS (Plain old telephone system)


  • The original amplitude-modulated consumer radio broadcast system was termed "AM" (or "standard broadcast") when frequency-modulated ("FM") broadcasting began.
  • Single-channel audio was the norm until stereo equipment became available, prompting the retronyms "monophonic" and "monaural" (sometimes simply "mono").
  • The advent of satellite radio has prompted the term terrestrial radio.
  • Compact Discs, originally developed as a high-fidelity digital audio media, were later adopted for use as a general data medium. Thus, "CD-ROM" (for data) prompted the retronym "CD Audio", "CDDA", or "Red Book CD" (because of its Rainbow Book standard).
  • In 2007, the original line of Applemarker iPod portable audio players received a retronym suffix, becoming the iPod classic line, to be more easily distinguished from other iPod product lines.

Motion pictures

The first mass-distributed films were monochrome and silent. As the technology developed:


Television has prompted several retronyms:


Telephone calls were originally completed through the assistance of an operator at a switchboard. When self-dialing service became available, the older service was referred to as "operator assisted" dialing. Later, tone-based dialing prompted the older service to be retronymed "pulse" dialing. The older phones were also referred to as "rotary dial" phone, to differentiate from the newer phones with a keypad.

The advent of digital telephony services such as ISDN led to analog services being described as "plain old telephone service" (or simply "POTS"), primarily within the telephone industry. As mobile telephone have become prevalent, many consumers have come to refer to POTS as "land line" phone service – although calls placed on such a line may traverse wireless links such as microwave and satellite.



  • India and Indonesia were known by Europeans as "the Indies", until their discovery of the Caribbeanmarker (which they called the West Indiesmarker) led to the necessity of the retronym East Indies.
  • During the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Mexicomarker was sometimes referred to (particularly in the U.S.marker) as "Old Mexico", to differentiate it from the territory and later statemarker of New Mexico. "Old Mexico" is an example of a retronym that gradually fell into disuse, and is rarely heard today outside of Western.
  • Simón Bolívar united Venezuelamarker, New Granada, and Ecuadormarker under the name Colombia. After the union was later dissolved, New Granada changed its name to Colombiamarker. Historians coined the term Gran Colombia (Great Colombia) to refer to Bolivar's union.


  • In entertainment media, a retronym can be applied to a property that becomes a franchise and requires the source property to be differentiated from others in the franchise.
  • A similar set of relabellings is used to refer to Japanese anime series, which are given non-sequential additions to their titles.
    • Mobile Suit Gundam, the original show from 1979, is either called First Gundam or Gundam 0079.
  • "Classic" is often applied to the first computer game in a franchise, especially if the sequels are numerically titled. This is often necessary to access references to the original game on the internet by means of a search engine, which would catch all the subsequently numbered games as well. Examples include:
  • Counter-Strike was more commonly known among gamers as Counter-Strike 1.6 or CS 1.6 after the release of Counter-Strike: Source.
  • Command & Conquer was frequently referred to as Tiberian Dawn after its sequel Tiberian Sun was confirmed, and also because it lent its name to the series.
  • Left 4 Dead is starting to become more commonly known as "Left 4 Dead 1" with the announcement of Left 4 Dead 2.

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