Sunday, May 29, 2011


 Word of the Week

A feature wherein TileHead highlights a word that is is especially interesting or unusual (and, incidentally, useful in Scrabble play):


(unscramble the letters to form this week's word...)


(answer below, after a little more spoiler space....)


This week's word is...

RETRONYM (n. pl. -S)

  • Definition(s):
    1. (n.) a term coined to distinguish the original form from a more recent version or development
  • Front hooks: (none)
  • Back hooks: -S
  • Anagrams: (none)
  • Longer extensions: (none)
  • Wraparounds: (none)
  • Other Spellings: (none)
  • Related Forms: (none)

TileHead says:
Often I focus on terms that have been in the English language for hundreds of years.  RETRONYM, on the other hand, is barely 30 years old, having been coined by Frank Mankiewicz in 1980 and popularized by a William Safire newspaper column in that same year.  It is formed on classical roots, though, and describes a concept that is probably as old as technology itself.  The prefix retro- is Latin ("backward, or behind") and the suffix -onym is Greek ("name, or word"), and Mankiewicz's coinage combines them to refer to a term that was not used until a newer version of the concept came into existence: for example, "acoustic guitar" was created to distinguish the traditional guitar from the newer "electric guitar."  Similarly, "snail mail" (first documented c. 1982) was coined only after email and voicemail came into widespread use; previously, it was usually simply "mail."
True art lay elsewhere, probably in what we now, in a classic retronym, call "live drama."
  ~ Washington Post article, 6 November 1988

But what happens when you accept your position in the appearance pecking order... only to find that... while you've been foolishly priding yourself on "aging naturally" — there's a retronym for you — others have been slipping off to the dermatologist's office.
  ~ Beth Teitell, Drinking Problems at the
      Fountain of Youth (2008)
Some other modern RETRONYMS include:
  • analog watch
  • conventional oven 
  • day baseball 
  • landline telephone
  • manual transmission
  • natural grass
  • print book
The -onym root, by the way, is a very common suffix in English words and is especially familiar to competitors in the National Spelling Bee.  Top spellers study assiduously and must navigate through all manner of oddities in our language, including HOMONYMS (words having the same or similar sound but different meanings, such as pleural and plural), EPONYMS (words formed from the name of a person, such as pasteurization), and TOPONYMS (words formed from the name of a place, such as bikini).  The latter two categories of words can be especially tricky since personal and geographical names do not always follow the normal rules of ORTHOGRAPHY ("correct spelling").

Competitive orthography comes to mind now because the 2011 National Spelling Bee ( will take place later this week, May 31st-June 2nd, in Washington, D.C.  Portions of this year's event will be televised on ESPN, with coverage of some of the earlier rounds starting at 10 a.m. EST on June 2nd and coverage of the final rounds starting at 8:30 p.m. EST that night.  So tune in to see some stupendous spelling!  (But heed this word to the wise: the Spelling Bee uses a different word source than Scrabble, so words used in the Bee may not be acceptable or may be spelled differently in Scrabble, and vice versa.)  Good luck to all the spellers!

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