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Is ‘Wireless’ Anemic or Merely Retrospective?

by Nick Gall  |  October 17, 2008  |  15 Comments

In a recent post, Dave McCoy discusses what he calls anemic words and how “[d]efinitional context [entailed by such words] will constrain your imagination.”

I suppose whether or not to hark back to a word’s roots or context is a matter of taste. I personally love studying etymology — the history of words. And I often find it gives me greater insight into how the word is used today. For me, definitional context liberates my imagination — not constrains it. For example see my discussion of the shared roots of the words die, data, and date. Not everyone’s cup of tea, but it sure tastes good to me.

As Dave asked in his Manchurian Candidate post: “Are we so focused on tomorrow that we deny today and desecrate the past?” I hope the answer is the same for old words as well as old movies.

BTW, for those of you interested in such things, the “official” name for putting an anemic word in front of the original, unqualified word is retronym.

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Nicholas Gall
VP Distinguished Analyst
14 years at Gartner
35 years IT industry

Nick Gall is a vice president in Gartner Research. As a founding member of Gartner’s Enterprise Planning and Architecture Strategies, Mr. Gall advises clients on enterprise strategies for interoperability, innovation and execution. Mr. Gall is a leading authority on middleware… Read Full Bio


Thoughts on Is ‘Wireless’ Anemic or Merely Retrospective?


  1. David McCoy says:

    Touché, Nick! I too like etymology. I just know how I can be constrained by nuance if I am not careful. Take the term, “mobile phones” – a term that exists in contrast with phones that would not move. That tells something about me and my context. It says I think of phones as fixed objects and consider it novel that they can now move. I sound quaint. I like quaintness in my movies, but not in my imagination. So, I don’t see a paradox between my love of old movies and my disdain for nuanced connotation.

    The term retronym is cool, but didn’t quite get at my point. Close, but not the same nuance I was going for. Retronyms exist because a later, specialized linguistic entity exists. If I once talked of cheese, and then start talking about soft cheese, someone is going to coin the retronym “hard cheese” in order to keep the cosmic balance. Just more of the same anemia…but a retrospective one. I like to keep my anemia forward-looking.

  2. Nick Gall says:

    “The term retronym is cool, but didn’t quite get at my point. Close, but not the same nuance I was going for. Retronyms exist because a later, specialized linguistic entity exists.”

    I’m glad you like “retronym”, but I don’t understand why it misses the mark. Landline or wired-line phones still exist, which is why we say “cell phone” or “mobile phone”. Hardback books still exist, which is why we say “paperback book” or “softback book”.

    So I’m not quite sure how “retronym” misses your point. I’d love to understand your point better.

  3. David McCoy says:

    Hi Nick! Here’s the reason I say retronym is slightly off for the point I was making. I may be wrong, but let me use an example. Back in the days when I bought my first computer mouse, I just referred to it as “a mouse.” Then, when the market offered “a wireless mouse,” we introduced what I consider to be an anemic phrase – “wireless mouse” – a phrase that exists solely because mice were once wired. Note, that so far, we have not created a retronym, we have just created a new term: “wireless mouse.” When we now talk about wireless mice, we have to account for the poor mouse that is not wireless – apparently he can’t just be called a mouse anymore. There – if I understand retronymic language – is where the retronym comes in: “wired mouse.” The wired mouse is so named because of the new term (“wireless mouse”) has a retroactive effect on the original baseline, non-modified term – “mouse.” Before wireless mice, no one referred to wired mice – “wired” was an appendage that was un-needed, an assumed attribute. The same can be seen with wireless keyboard and wired keyboard. According to my read, the retronym comes in when you have to go back and adjust the original term to account for the new term. “Wireless mouse” is not a retronym – the retronym is “wired mouse.”

    My post was to express my interest in the “new term,” not the retronym. It may be a nit, but in the causal chain, “wireless mouse” begets the need to refer to “wired mouse.” “Landline telephone” is likely a retronym beget by “mobile telephone.” I don’t recall anyone using the phrase “Call him on the landline telephone” in The Manchurian Candidate – it was simply “telephone.” My interest is in the first-mover term – the causal term that triggers the need for the retronym to be developed. The retronym – although equally anemic in many cases – is of secondary interest to me. My personal biases aside, the retronym itself – as you point out – is now a term that offers the same semantic fun-times as the causal term.

    So – to use a great example from the Wikiepedia link [http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Retronym ] (referencing Safire’s example) – while “digital watch” is the causal term and “analog watch” is the retronym, my passion lies with “digital watch.” By definition, it is the newer term and in the case of technology, most likely the more advanced, and therefore the one most likely to be relevant for innovation and the one most in danger of limiting our imagination of what could be through its semantic ties. By my view, most innovative terms come first; their existence is what begets retronyms. I don’t know how well it works the other way around.

    I know this sounds nerdy… hope it makes sense.

  4. David McCoy says:

    Clarification of my poor editing in the prior post: “By definition, it [causal term] is the newer term and in the case of technology, most likely the more advanced”

    should say

    “By definition, it [causal term] is the newer CONCEPT/ENTITY and in the case of technology, most likely the more advanced”

    The retronym is always the newer term – by definition

  5. Nick Gall says:

    David, You are absolutely correct that technically the label “retronym” only applies to the term coined to disambiguate the original concept. Thus “analog watch” is a retronym, but “digital watch” is not. I am in the bad habit of applying “retronym” to both.

    Thanks for pointing this out because you’ve prompted me to find a label for terms like “digital watch” that cause the emergence of a retronym. I’ve already asked about it on Wikipedia and alt.english.usage. And I’m going to blog about it as soon as I finish this comment.

    But this brings me to my question back to you. I am even more confused now as to how a term like “wireless network” or “digital watch” could “constrain [my] imagination”. I thought your logic was roughly as follows: “Wireless networks” constrains my imagination because it makes me think of the retronym “wired network”, when instead I should just ignore the retronym and take the new term on its own terms.

    But now you are saying that the retronym is of secondary interest to you. But how can it be of secondary interest when it is one’s remembering the retronym that causes the constraint on one’s imagination? A young kid hearing “wireless network” has no constraint on her imagination because she doesn’t even know about a “wired network”.

    So it seems to me it is only people who know the retronym for a new term who might possibly have their imaginations’ constrained. Since it is the retronym causing the constraining, I’d think the retronym would be of primary importance to you — not secondary.

  6. […] Who’s BloggingNick GallDavid McCoyWhit AndrewsAndrew FrankLydia LeongKristin MoyerMastering The Hype CycleDan ShollerGreg YoungJohn PescatoreCameron HaightJeffrey MannMark RaskinoAllen WeinerGartner Blog NetworkMichael MaozAndrew WhiteJim SinurBrian PrenticeNick JonesOffice of the OmbudsmanJim HolincheckDavid CearleyTom AustinJeff RosterAndrea DiMaioAnthony BradleyMark DriverFrench CaldwellJim LundyKathy HarrisThomas BittmanDebbie WilsonVal SribarThomas OtterFrank KenneyDaryl PlummerGene AlvarezToby BellGene PhiferPat PhelanMike McGuireDavid M SmithSteve PrenticeNikos DrakosEric GoodnessAndreas BittererRay ValdesTom Murphy ← Is ‘Wireless’ Anemic or Merely Retrospective? […]

  7. David McCoy says:

    1. First rule I must remember – Never, ever argue with a Juris Doctor.
    2. Second rule – Never post where there is no comment-editing capability (very reluctantly violating that one here – no chance to correct fuzzy logic)
    3. Third rule – Always remember rules 1 and 2 above.

    Yes, I think you have convinced me that I should reconsider my relative interest in these terms, considering at least a case for equal passion (a point for you). The retronym, if properly defined, is based on the very concept that my posited-anemic-word-imagination-flaw is hung-up on. I have established that I cannot think “wireless mouse” without thinking “once wired.” And “wired” is the business-end of the retronym “wired mouse.” But, does a well-established retronym exist for every causal word? I don’t think this is 100% assured – hence a point for me…for now. When good retronyms do exist, they are a matched set with the causal (point for you). But for the retronym to be my primary interest is to completely succumb to my original warning – that of being trapped within a limited imagination, focusing on the past (points to both). It is the hole that keeps me down, but my interest is always on the solid ground above me – the anti-hole. The retronym may be of primary interest as the cause of the pain, but the causal word (do please find a good word for this) is the anemic word – the point of my original, long-ago post and interest.

    Perhaps the problem is that “interest” is itself an anemic word… tonight… well after 1 am… when all rational people are asleep or at the motion picture shows, or talking on their mobile phones, or sneaking peeks at this linguistic insanity on their nettops. As you can see from these examples (reader see prior posts), I am still more interested/concerned/worried about the causal word limiting my imagination… even thought it may mentally conjure up the retronym to achieve that worrisome effect… just as you said (dang… another point for you). The causal is more interesting to focus on as an anemic word – it has anemic cachet – but the retronym is the boogie man that makes it anemic. Should that invert my “interest?” Define interest first (I lose a point for that).

    One last attempt from the free shot line. You say, “Since it is the retronym causing the constraining, I’d think the retronym would be of primary importance to you — not secondary.” My response is that a retronym only comes into being because of the new word (what I have been calling the ‘causal element’). Since I believe that the created is always inferior to the creator, my interest (a confirmed bad word) is naturally in the “creator word.” Further, there are plenty of anemic words for which no established retronym exists – yet. You could conjure one up, but the act is secondary to the conjuring of the causal word. So the retronym is not an assured entity, although it may be an assured concept that snaps into being just as soon as one utters, “wireless mouse.” However the causal element exists as soon as it is created. Therefore, it is the more interesting to me as an anemic word to examine if only because of timing. But, I do believe the retronymic concept is always present, even if the retronym doesn’t yet exist as an established word. That, as you point out, was central to my argument (point to us both at this late hour).

    If this makes sense, then it might just be my passion overriding my logic (deduct 3 points if true). If it does not make sense, see rule 1 and 2 above (no points awarded). I fear that this pedantic discussion (my fault mostly) – at this late hour – will brand both of us as losers who need to get lives. Or it may give some insight into how analysts debate points back and forth and come to a richer understanding, where each walks away with new insight – one that gets a little closer to a shared truth. Nah! We are going to be branded as losers.

    P.S. For some reason, I feel like I should be saying, “Iocaine poison? Inconceivable!” in homage to The Princess Bride and that hilarious battle of wits that left me laughing on the floor. I think this one has topped that for lunacy.

  8. […] the Industry Analyst – This is really easy.  I’m going to go as a retronym-value-debate.  I bet I can get Nick Gall to go with me.  Collectively, we are about the most […]

  9. Nick Gall says:

    David, You say that: “Further, there are plenty of anemic words for which no established retronym exists – yet.” I can’t think of any. Could you provide some examples? Other than this point, I think I am in generally in agreement with your extended commentary. Thanks!

  10. David McCoy says:

    “Further, there are plenty of anemic words for which no established retronym exists – yet.” I can’t think of any. Could you provide some examples?

    I think these two fit the bill:

    table tennis
    shuttle diplomacy

    I know of no well-established retronym for table tennis. It is just “tennis.”

    Kissinger’s shuttle diplomacy was a tweak on diplomacy in general, but I don’t think a retronym has been established.

    Note, I am talking about “established” retronyms. That means that if I have to go to Google to search for one, I have proven my point.

    At least… I have for now… I think :>

  11. In Britain, it’s called Lawn Tennis, to distinguish it not from Table Tennis but from Real Tennis.

    In this instance, the prefix “Real” may be a corruption of “Royal”. But in other cases, the prefix “Real” is a good indicator of both retronymy and nostalgia. In Britain, we also have a Campaign for Real Ale, which protests against the vile chemical fizz that passes for beer in many pubs. Northern Ireland had the “Real” IRA, which violently protested against the political compromises struck by the “Provisional” IRA. (Nostalgia isn’t always cute and cuddly.)

    Most of the examples we have been discussing have been simple innovations, where the differentiation is uncontroversial. Where it gets more interesting is where the differentiation is politicized.

    As technology analysts we see this even in technology. Vendors trying to attach the latest fashionable labels to their products, while using retronyms to disparage their competitors. After we had 3G phones, people started to talk about 2.5G. And then 2.75G. And so on.

  12. David McCoy says:

    I love the 2.5G and 2.75G labels! Great point.

  13. Nick Gall says:

    Richard, I like your Lawn/Real Tennis example.

    David, I think your two examples are pretty weak. First, the general population of the US does not even use the term “table tennis”, they use “ping pong” — which is why there’s been no linguistic pressure on “tennis” form a retronym.

    Shuttle diplomacy is a weak example for a different reason. Diplomacy did not originally mean one particular style of negotiation. See this interesting list of styles of diplomacy: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Category:Diplomacy_by_genre . Since the original term “diplomacy” did not refer to a specific style (or genre as Wikipedia calls it), the introduction of yet another style “shuttle diplomacy” does not trigger a retronym.

    Another example would be “car”. SInce “car” always refered to a wide variety of car styles, there was no “privileged” or “original” style that called out for a retronym. We have sports cars, family cars, starter cars, racing cars, electric cars, diesel cars, etc.

    So my question back to you is, “Do you consider any adjective that specifies the “type” of the noun it modifies to be an ‘anemic’ word?” If so, it seems you are railing against a pretty major and necessary class of words: dormer window, colonial house, maple tree, brick house, abstract painting, contact sport, third-world country, police officer, public company, packet network, computer language, etc. Are all these adjectives ‘anemic’? If not, which ones are anemic and why? If none of them are anemic, then explain why the shuttle in shuttle diplomacy is anemic and my above examples are not.

  14. The prefix “Real” certainly doesn’t sound anemic to me. On the contrary, it sounds like a reaction to a perceived anemia: something has become watered down, and its traditional nature must now be reestablished and reaffirmed.

    (I think “real” serves as a retronym, because it is trying to reestablish an original concept. But I’m not sure you agree with this notion of retronymy.)

    But does the same apply to “Natural”? “Organic”? These are often defined negatively – in terms of the absence of artificial chemicals. So are they anemic (negative) or full-blooded concepts?

    But why does it matter anyway whether a qualifier is anemic or full-blooded? There are some serious logical complications that are opened up by trying to define concepts according to whether they are positive or negative. (I know – I have a half-written long-abandoned book on the subject.) If you don’t need these complications, then why go there?

  15. Nick Gall says:

    Richard,

    “There are some serious logical complications that are opened up by trying to define concepts according to whether they are positive or negative. (I know – I have a half-written long-abandoned book on the subject.) If you don’t need these complications, then why go there?”

    I couldn’t agree more. I am working in a similar vein. Here’s a quote on the subject that I really love:

    It is due to our choosing to accept or reject that we do not see the true nature of things.
    – Sengtsan, third Zen patriarch

    Because all things are dualities, perhaps even pluralities?

    I think I saw the quote on Doug Purdy’s blog.



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