More -Nyms: Bacro- and Retro-

“Hey, we need something called the PATRIOT Act. That’s patriotic. We need to come up with a name that uses those letters.”

“We need to add USA to that, to be really clear that it’s American!”

And thus we have the USA PATRIOT Act: The Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism Act. Not that anyone really remembers that wording. Most of us don’t even remember that “USA” is part of the name. We just call it the PATRIOT Act. (Not the best naming device, in my opinion, if folks can’t remember the actual words . . .)

So, that’s one example of a bacronym. Start with the word or letters you want to use, and make a name that fits with them. Clunky at best, at least in that example. A slightly less painful construct of the same kind is the DARE program: Drug Abuse Resistance Education. Perhaps you’ve seen the black T-shirts with the red and white graphics, reading “DARE to Keep Kids Off Drugs.” It’s a school-based initiative that, as you would expect, is aimed at teaching children the dangers of substance abuse. A fine concept, and a good name–certainly easier to remember than the previous example. Short and sweet, and a good mnemonic using the name as a verb in an exhortation.

Then there’s Stephen Colbert on the International Space Station.

Retronyms also look backward, but from a different perspective. Where bacronyms start with the name and work toward the wording, retronyms come about when something new becomes so pervasive we realize we need a name for the thing it replaced, so people will know exactly what we mean.

Take “wristwatch.” What image comes to mind when you see or hear that word? We have smartwatches now, and if you wear one, you know that’s what you call it. Everyone knows what you mean. Perhaps you still wear the digital watch you got in college. Everyone knows what that means, too. The old-fashioned watch with the moving hands? You can’t just say “watch,” because someone will misunderstand. Now, you call that an “analog watch,” for the opposite of digital. Analog wall clocks. Analog watches. Analog recordings (on vinyl, as opposed to digital on compact disc).

Here is a list from Wikipedia, if you’re interested in seeing more examples. Some of them we’ve used so long, we might not realize they count as retronyms (like “manual typewriter” or “conventional oven”), and others are fairly recent (like “dairy milk,” necessary with the increased use of plant-based alternatives).

(This post sprang from conversation at Twitter after a repost of my take on abbreviations, acronyms, and initialisms. I want to thank Mededitor and Madam Grammar for the thought-provoking discussion and for urging me to explore this further.)

3 thoughts on “More -Nyms: Bacro- and Retro-

  1. Very interesting! Thanks for sharing the information. I really enjoyed the retronyms. The additional adjective wasn’t necessary in the first place (like “manual typewriter”), but became necessary over time to distinguish objects and/or specify which ones. I never heard of that before, but I like it. Now I’m off to see that list on Wiki… 😀

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  2. I didn’t even realize PATRIOT Act (much less USA PATRIOT Act) was an acronym. I still remember chuckling when Coulsen appeared in the first Iron Man movie and introduced himself as an agent for the Strategic Homeland Intervention, Enforcement and Logistics Division (“Just call us SHIELD”) because the acronym seemed like such a ridiculous stretch. I guess real Washington DC likes a good stretch.

    A couple of other ridiculous bacroynms/backronyms/backtronyms (I’ve seen all three used) are the early internet search engines Jughead and Veronica. Archie came first, and was modeled after the word archive. Then came the “Very Easy Rodent-Oriented Net-wide Index to Computer Archives” and “Jonzy’s Universal Gopher Hierarchy Excavation And Display.” If these computer nerds had watched more TV and read fewer comic books, they might just a easily have been called Edith and Meathead.

    I’m not sure wristwatch counts as a retronym, though. A watch used to be something that hung from a chain or a fob before someone designed a more wearable version. “Pocket watch,” then, is probably more accurately called a retronym.

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    1. Hi, Andy!

      I didn’t say that “wristwatch” was a retronym. I asked what image comes to mind when you see the word. Is it an analog watch with a dial and hands, or a digital one with a readout? Just saying “wristwatch” is no longer sufficient for clear communication, in my opinion.

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