Express Yourself

10 Fascinating Words About Words

You’ve probably used examples of all of them

Dave Taubler
Human Parts
Published in
8 min readAug 12, 2020

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Photo: Catherine Falls Commercial/Moment/Getty Images

I’m a sucker for good words.

I’ve been known to describe words as “delicious.” I keep lists of interesting words I encounter. And I maintain a simmering lamentation about the slow, sad death of the word “irony” (it’s the one word the English language has to describe “a state of affairs… that seems deliberately contrary to what one expects and is often amusing as a result”… we have enough words that mean “something that sucks”).

So when I discover a savory new word, I get excited. But even more exciting, I’ve found, is to discover a word that describes other words. It’s like biting into a rich, creamy, chocolatey tart and discovering an even richer, creamier, chocolatey-er filling inside.

So without further delay, I present 10 of the tastiest words about words that I’ve recently discovered.

Retronym

I discovered this term not too long ago. A retronym is a noun to which a modifier has been added in order to describe what was once its default state, but no longer is — usually as a result of technological advancements.

Need an example? How about “cloth diaper.” Once upon a time, all diapers were cloth. Today, “diaper” connotes “disposable,” so we now need a qualifier to refer to the original, cloth types.

Other great examples include “acoustic guitar,” “snail mail,” and “black-and-white TV.” And also, pretty much any technology modified by “analog” or food qualified by “organic.”

The really cool thing about “retronym” is that — much like any actual given retronym—the word itself only came into being later, when the need arose.

A cautionary note about retronyms

It might simply be that my aperture for retronyms is wide open, given that I recently learned the word. But it seems like the word is getting around, and folks are lining up to list their favorite retronyms. The problem is that lots of these “retronyms” are merely adjective/noun combinations. “Chocolate chip” is not a retronym, nor is “cellular phone” (if anything, it’s the opposite).

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Dave Taubler
Human Parts

Software architect, engineering leader, musician, husband, dad