What are retronyms, and why do they exist?
One way that language changes is the coinage of terms to describe new versions of existing concepts or inventions, for example the compound electric guitar to differentiate the new invention from the existing type of guitar. However, with electric guitars becoming increasingly widespread, the word guitar no longer unambiguously described one that could be played without electrical amplification. Instead, the earlier invention received a new name, acoustic guitar, to make it clear which kind of guitar is meant. Words invented for existing concepts to distinguish them from something new are known as retronyms.
Before the 1920s, it was understood that, if you said film, you were referring to something without sound. With the introduction of sound, a new class of films called talkies—with an earliest date in the current Oxford English Dictionary (OED) entry of 1913—or speakies—used as early as 1921—arose. As this technology became more common, most films were considered to involve sound, and to differentiate the earlier type, the term silent movie or silent film began to be used. The first quotation currently appearing in the OED using the retronym silent film is dated 1918, and the form silent drama appeared earlier, in 1914.
The word camera was first used to refer to a device for taking photographs as early as 1840, although the device in question has changed radically in the years since. The late 19th century saw the introduction of the term colour camera or color camera to refer to those cameras capable of taking photographs that were not in black and white, although the context shows that this was ‘patent pending’. Such photographs were known as colour-photographs as far back as 1857, when the discussion was still very theoretical. The earliest use of digital camera in the OED is from 1961, and now that such cameras (not to mention phone cameras) have become commonplace, the early type has come to be referred to by the retronym film camera. The extent to which this clarifies what a speaker means is not exactly obvious, given a film camera may also refer to the kind of camera for making films or movies.
The word telephone was shortened to phone by the 1880s. Since then, both the device and the names by which it is known have undergone some dramatic transformations. The first phones—sometimes referred to as rotary phones or rotary dial phones—were eventually replaced with push-button phones. The OED’s current entries so far shows that mobile telephones were first discussed in 1945, and cell phones in the 1980s; as we started to carry our phones around with us, terms like house phone and landline started to gather momentum to refer to those we leave behind in our houses. The most recent step forward for phones has been for them to become smart phones—cited in the OED as early as 1980. When smart phones became more typical, a term was needed to refer to those mobile phones of ours that had fewer capabilities: the word dumb phone was used in the 1990s, originally to refer to phones used to access the functionality of more sophisticated systems, but is now more commonly used as a retronym to distinguish mobile phones that lack certain capabilities, such as accessing the Internet or using a touchscreen.
Gender and sexuality
It is not only when something new is invented that we may need a new word: if a new concept is used in common parlance, it is sometimes necessary to invent a contrasting term. With greater prominence of the term transgender, there has been a rise in use of a contrasting term for individuals who are not transgendered: cisgender. This term was used in the 1990s, but has seen an increase in frequency in recent years.
The concept of marriage has undergone many transformations through the years, as evidenced by its many senses in the OED. Recently, changes to laws around the world to recognize marriage between two people of the same gender has created a gap for a way to refer definitively to marriage between two people of different genders. The use of gay marriage is vastly more common than that of straight marriage. In a little over half of uses of straight marriage in our corpus, the word gay appears within the same line, indicating that straight marriage is being used only as a contrast to gay marriage and is not yet being used in place of marriage in other contexts. Only time can tell us whether straight marriage will become a commonly used retronym.
There are a lot of new terms now that may necessitate the invention or perpetuation of new retronyms. The rise of e-cigarettes—popular enough to have earned vape its place as Word of the Year in 2014—has led some to refer to its counterpart as a tobacco cigarette. Similarly, e-books are often contrasted with physical books, paper books, and even dead tree books. More recently, we’ve started to see other types of technology being described as smart: will smart watches prove popular enough for us to call our old watches dumb? Already, we have seen the popularity of digital watches force us to specify analogue for those with a traditional face, using hands to display the time. New technology is on the cusp of realizing safe, driverless cars. If such vehicles become commonplace, what might English-speakers in the future call the type of cars used today?