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What does one call the term that causes the emergence of a complementary retronym?

by Nick Gall  |  October 18, 2008  |  12 Comments

[This post was triggered by a fun discussion in the comments on the post Is ‘Wireless’ Anemic or Merely Retrospective?]

When the term "electric guitar" became nearly as popular as the original unmodified word "guitar", the term "acoustic guitar" emerged because "guitar" (unmodified) was considered ambiguous. "Acoustic guitar" is labeled the retronym. What is "electric guitar" labeled?

Certainly, both "electric guitar" and "acoustic guitar" are neologisms. But I think it would be useful to have a word to denote the neologism ("electric guitar") that caused the retronym neologism to come into being. I looked around and didn’t find any such word. Before I coined one myself, I wanted to make sure that there wasn’t one already out there. So I am asking here.

BTW, if there is nothing else out there, I’m thinking of coining the word "specinym" for "specialized term." Retronyms come into being when someone puts a specialized qualifier in front of a word denoting a concept that previously did not have any "species" and then the specialized term becomes popular.

Here’s how I would use "specinym" in a sentence: "The popularization of a specinym like ‘electric guitar’ is what leads to the creation of a retronym like ‘acoustic guitar’." Got any better proposals? How about "neonym"?

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Category: fun  language  

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 What does one call the term that causes the emergence of a complementary retronym?

  1. David McCoy says:

    My preference: a McCoy-Gall constructor :>

  2. Frank Hood says:

    OK, how does one pronounce specinym? English spelling makes for such fun! On seeing the word spelled, I would have pronounced it spes’-ih-nim leaving lots of hilarious opportunity for spoonerisms. Then I thought maybe spesh’-ih-nim, because it seemed to reference special. Now you leave me with the thought that it might be pronounced spees’-ih-nim or speesh’-ih-nim. Bottom line I think you either need to try again, or propose a different spelling to make the pronunciation clearer.

    I like the idea, but don’t have another word to propose yet.

  3. Frank Hood says:

    I mentioned this blog thread to my wife, Sharon Gaffney, and she came up with what I thought was a better word–originym.

  4. (Non-)Euclidean Geometry. (Non-)Biological Washing Powder. (Non-)Aligned Nations. (Non-)Aggression Pact. (Non-)Functional Requirements.

    Organic Food. Natural Childbirth. Unbleached Cotton. Lead-Free. GM-Free.

    But not all of these retronyms have a corresponding pair in common use. People don’t go into a store and ask for non-organic food or bleached cotton; women don’t go into maternity hospital and demand unnatural childbirth; it’s just that’s what you usually get given if you don’t specifically ask for the opposite. So terms like “organic” and “GM-free” and “natural” don’t appear as a response to a word, but as a response to an unspoken phenomenon.

  5. Nick Gall says:


    I agree that not all retronyms have specinyms. See for many more examples. I’m simply wondering what to call those phrases that people DO commonly use that are the terms that triggered the retronym, eg “electric guitar”, “paperback book”.

  6. Nick Gall says:


    I intend “specinym” to rhyme with “specimen”. “originym” is good, but it makes it seem as if the term that triggered the specinym is the __original__ term, which it clearly is not. Keep the suggestions coming!

  7. My point was about the causality of retronymy. The reason why we need the term “acoustic guitar” is not because of the existence of the term “electric guitar” but because of the existence of electric guitars. So I don’t agree that one word causes another word to come into being, which is the basis for your definition. I prefer to think of this as an unfolding of language, in which undifferentiated concepts (guitar, geometry) divide into differentiated concepts (acoustic, electric, Euclidean, non-Euclidean).

  8. Nick Gall says:

    Richard, ‘The reason why we need the term “acoustic guitar” is not because of the existence of the term “electric guitar” but because of the existence of electric guitars.’ On the contrary, as I’ve pointed out elsewhere, if the type of guitar now known as “electric guitar” had been given a name without “guitar” in it, then the retronym would NOT have come into existence. For example, if we had used the name “guilectric”, then plain old “guitar” could have comfortably continued to serve as the name of what we now call “acoustic guitar”.

    It is words that beget words, not things in themselves.

  9. But that was the point of my other examples, Nick. The label “organic food” was a retronymic response to a concern that food without this label might contain an unpleasant cocktail of agricultural chemicals.

    You agree that not all retronyms have specinyms. So you need two different causal explanations for retronymy – one for that do have specinyms and another one for those that don’t. I think it’s simpler to have a single unified explanation for retronymy.

    In claiming that it is only words that beget words, you seem to be describing language as a closed system, with no reference to any things–in-themselves. I am uncomfortable with this view of language, and in any case I wasn’t talking about things-in-themselves but phenomena (appearances).

    By the way, on my SoapBox blog I have discussed some of the practical implications of the difference between phenomena and things-in-themselves for Event-Driven Architecture.

  10. Nick Gall says:

    Richard, I’m not sure I agree that “organic food” is the retronym. I think it is the specinym. When you walk into a Whole Foods supermarket you see foods labeled “organic” and “conventional”. So I think “conventional food” is the retronym.

    I’m reconsidering my agreement that not all retronyms have specinyms (see how handy my new word is!). The American Heritage Dictionary definition of retronym requires a specinym: “A word or phrase created because an existing term that was once used alone needs to be distinguished from __a term referring to a new development__ [the specinym NG] , as acoustic guitar in contrast to electric guitar or analog watch in contrast to digital watch.” See .

    But in any case, all the definitions of retronym that I have seen require some form of __linguistic__ change as a causal factor in the emergence of the retronym. Besides American Heritage, take for example the Wiktionary definition: “A new word or phrase coined for an old object or concept whose original name has become used for something else or is no longer [liguistically NG] unique.”

    I’m going to try to avoid a fun but fruitless tangent into the realm of noumena vs phenomena by simply observing that even if one claims that some noumena-like event like “the electric guitar came into existence” is a causal factor in the emergence of a retronym like “acoustic guitar”, that noumena-like “existence event” must be mediated by a linguistic event or linguistic shift before the retronym appears.

    The linguistic event or shift that triggers the retronym is ALWAYS ambiguity, eg ambiguity concerning the previously undifferentiated term “guitar”. Hence “words beget words” or perhaps better “use of words begets new uses of words” or best “language begets language”.

    This does not make language closed. It simply recognizes that language is an emergent system. And like any emergent system, it cannot be completely mapped to or reduced to that from which it arose, eg things-in-themselves, noumena.

  11. But words like “organic” and “natural” are generally thought to mean something like “as it used to be before THEY started messing with it”

    I think you and I are classifying the term “organic” differently because we are framing the phenomenon differently. If you take the long view, then “organic” means going back to something close to original agricultural methods, therefore retro. If you take a much shorter view, then “organic” represents merely a premium-value marketing innovation. Obviously language depends on framing.

    Meanwhile, my local supermarket offers a compromise label – “Conventionally grown without pesticides” – I interpret this to mean it is not quite up to the rigorous standards required for labelling as organic, but not quite as full of chemicals as the mass-produced stuff. In either of the two frames I mentioned above, this appears half-way between the retronym and the specinym. Rather like 2.75G. However, there is a third frame in which this compromise evolves into a new standard, going beyond both specinym and retronym to give us a retro-retronym.

  12. The label is just LOUDER. For me anyway, that’s really the way to tell the difference: CRANK IT UP!

    Of course, acoustic guitars can have pickups and be electrified too, and thus louder. Is it then retro-recursive?

    I think they called them solid body guitars for a while, BTW.

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