Word Matters Podcast

Retronyms & Ampersands

Word Matters, Episode 34

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You probably encounter them all the time: new words created to describe the older version of a thing. (Like an acoustic guitar. Or skim milk.) Let's talk about them. Then, we'll check in on the English language's former 27th letter: &. No, that's not a typo. We're talking about the ampersand. (And how it got that name.)

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Emily Brewster: Coming up on Word Matters: what's old is new again, and, the "and" symbol. I'm Emily Brewster, and Word Matters is produced by Merriam-Webster in collaboration with New England Public Media. On each episode, Merriam-Webster editors Neil Serven, Ammon Shea, Peter Sokolowski and I explore some aspect of the English language, from the dictionary's vantage point.

Even if you haven't heard the word for them, you encounter them on a regular basis. Think black coffee, or acoustic guitar. It's when a new term gets created to refer to the older, original version of a thing. I'll explain. A retronym is a term that's created or adopted to distinguish the original, or older version of something from another, more recent version. So, classic example is acoustic guitar. There was no need for the term acoustic guitar until there was such a thing as an electric guitar. Similar to film camera, there was no need to refer to a film camera until there was such a thing as a digital camera. So, the word retronym was coined by Frank Mankiewicz, who was an American journalist and former president of NPR, and he apparently kept an extensive list of retronyms, having not just coined the word, but also being a great collector of retronyms. We don't have his list, but I have a list of my own. Often they are a compound term like acoustic guitar, but not always, and they're often technologically-related. But, if you start thinking about retronyms, it's actually a very, very broad category. For example, whole milk. There was never any whole milk until you had skim milk, until you had 2% milk, and then you have whole milk. Food terms are a wealthy source of retronyms. Do you all have any favorite retronyms?

Peter Sokolowski: Regular coffee, right?

Emily Brewster: Yeah, regular coffee's a good one. Yeah.

Neil Serven: An old one that they don't really need anymore was leaded gasoline.

Peter Sokolowski: Oh, right.

Emily Brewster: Oh, right.

Neil Serven: Leaded gasoline, until unleaded gasoline became a thing, they needed to distinguish those two for a while.

Peter Sokolowski: I suppose we say meat lasagna.

Emily Brewster: Sure. Yeah, meat lasagna. Black tea, for example.

Peter Sokolowski: Oh yeah. Sure.

Emily Brewster: Right? Whole wheat bread.

Peter Sokolowski: Of course.

Emily Brewster: It used to be all whole wheat bread. Then you also have, there, a lot of sports terms too. You can have outdoor rock-climbing, because you used to have indoor rock-climbing. Cloth diaper is another one. Analog watch is a commonly considered one, as opposed to when you have a digital watch. Also, scripted show. That term only came into use after we had such a thing as a reality show.

Peter Sokolowski: Oh, right.

Neil Serven: Right.

Emily Brewster: I think my very favorite retronym, though, is British English.

Peter Sokolowski: Ah, of course.

Neil Serven: Yes.

Ammon Shea: That's a nice one.

Emily Brewster: No such thing as British English until we had something that was not British English.

Ammon Shea: Do you have a least favorite retronym?

Emily Brewster: Oh, that's a good question. All right, my least favorite retronym, I think, is probably Old World. You know, like the Old World/New World distinction. Once the New World was, quote unquote, discovered, then you had to have an Old World.

Peter Sokolowski: Oh yeah. I never even thought of that. We use that all the time.

Emily Brewster: Yeah. But even live music.

Peter Sokolowski: Sure.

Emily Brewster: Music used to always be live. Oh, another food one, corn on the cob.

Peter Sokolowski: Because it was available in cans, or something not on the cob.

Emily Brewster: Because somebody thought to cut it off the cob.

Peter Sokolowski: Right, right, right.

Emily Brewster: It was first on the cob. Then you would just call it corn.

Peter Sokolowski: This is a rich source of vocabulary.

Neil Serven: It's funny how retronyms can, in a way, point out a discrepancy you don't think of. But then, sometimes the discrepancy isn't one you necessarily want to acknowledge. Like, for example, I live in Massachusetts, and I am an avid candlepin bowler. And so, I will tell people this and they will say, "Well, how is that different from regular bowling, or real bowling?".

Peter Sokolowski: Yeah, I hear you.

Neil Serven: And, by regular bowling they mean ten-pin bowling, which is more popular in the rest of the country. But they don't say ten-pin bowling, they say "regular bowling." It was this normal thing for them, and then candlepin is this outlier that is somehow foreign and different, to which they are being introduced by the conversation.

Emily Brewster: But the "regular" is a typical retronymic form. Regular, as is-

Neil Serven: Regular, and real too.

Emily Brewster: Yup. Real, regular, natural also. A free-range chicken, right? All chicken used to to be free-range.

Neil Serven: Until we introduced the fence.

Ammon Shea: Free-range children is another one that has come up a lot lately.

Emily Brewster: Right. Also, natural versus fake.

Neil Serven: Yes.

Emily Brewster: So, my natural nails. We used to have fingernails-

Peter Sokolowski: Oh, right, right, because they would-

Emily Brewster: You all probably don't wear fake nails.

Peter Sokolowski: No.

Emily Brewster: But, if you did, then you would distinguish between natural nails and fake nails. Here's one I thought of not too long ago is: natural light.

Peter Sokolowski: Oh, yeah.

Emily Brewster: I'm not talking about the beer. There's a beer, Natty Light. That's not what I'm talking about.

Peter Sokolowski: Oh yeah, sure.

Emily Brewster: I'm talking about natural light versus electric light, or artificial light.

Ammon Shea: You've made me think, since so many of these are food-based, and there's this increasingly prevalent number of plant-based meats, is this going to lead to a new, even more fertile area of retronyms, to distinguish meat-meat from plant-based meat.

Neil Serven: Yeah. Have we started?

Emily Brewster: Right, right. There's going to be animal-based meat.

Peter Sokolowski: Right.

Emily Brewster: But, what you just did right now, this meat-meat, right, we also use that duplicative process in a kind of retronymic function. For a long time, done that. You don't say plant-based meat versus meat-meat.

Peter Sokolowski: In other words, it's kind of emphatic?

Emily Brewster: Right.

Ammon Shea: Right.

Emily Brewster: But, the retronyms do that in a more precise way.

Peter Sokolowski: Of course.

Emily Brewster: Because you could also say, "Do you like decaf coffee or do you like coffee-coffee?".

Peter Sokolowski: Right.

Neil Serven: So, it's like trying to reestablish this traditional idea of meat or coffee.

Ammon Shea: Which is interesting because the original sense of meat was just food or drink, it was not actually-

Peter Sokolowski: It was everything.

Ammon Shea: It wasn't meat-meat. It was food-meat, as opposed to meat-meat. And I feel like we're going to get into meat-meat-meat, to like really distinguish meat-meat from meat-meat-meat.

Peter Sokolowski: Yeah, it's a matter of gradation. Don't get that bread, no, I want a baguette-baguette, or I want a chocolate-chocolate. Identifying one as being superior, or more-

Ammon Shea: Traditional.

Peter Sokolowski: Traditional. Yeah, exactly. And then there's technological ones like rotary phone, of course, which we have to identify because a phone, now, is something else.

Neil Serven: That one has, sort of, duplicated in two different waves of retronymic action, because you had push-button phones that then caused rotary phones to become distinct, and then we had cellphones, which then caused landline phones to become distinct.

Peter Sokolowski: Oh, right.

Ammon Shea: That's true.

Neil Serven: And then we had smartphones, which caused flip-phones to be a distinct thing. That's a technology that has just created this whole staircase of different retronyms.

Ammon Shea: And, even before the rotary phone we had phones which were much closer to Siri, in that you would just pick up the receiver and just tell the operator who you wanted to speak to.

Neil Serven: Whose name might've been Siri.

Ammon Shea: Could've been Siri. We don't know.

Peter Sokolowski: I think my favorite is manual transmission. That must be a retronym.

Neil Serven: It has to be.

Ammon Shea: Yeah.

Peter Sokolowski: Yeah.

Emily Brewster: Definitely.

Neil Serven: There was one instance where I expected a retronym to take hold, and I never heard it, and I was sort of disappointed, maybe because the trend didn't last long enough. But, a few years ago, you would see advertised: hot yoga, which... it was, like, conducted in this hot environment, I guess, so it was this distinct thing, this special kind of yoga, but they never said cold yoga to distinguish it.

Ammon Shea: Lukewarm-

Emily Brewster: Room-temperature yoga. Tepid yoga. None of those are going to work in your marketing materials, that's for sure.

Ammon Shea: Lukewarm yoga.

Emily Brewster: To go back to the duplicative retronymic function of, "I want chocolate-chocolate," or, "I want coffee-coffee.". That doesn't really work in print.

Peter Sokolowski: Right.

Emily Brewster: It really requires the intonation behind it. That's where the distinction is, otherwise it's, "What's coffee-coffee?".

Ammon Shea: Sometimes I feel like you do see it with, kind of, quotes for emphasis around the first one. It does feel like it's making an attempt. I agree with you that it does feel like putting the stress on the first iteration of the word works much better in speech. I feel like people try to put single quotes around their word, if they're saying, 'chocolate' chocolate.

Emily Brewster: Yes, I have seen that. That's right. But, a retronym can be a more formal term, a more technical term. It can be the kind of term that you can put on an invoice if you want to stock your grocery store with something. You can't just say, "Milk-milk," on your grocery store invoice if you are trying to stock your grocery store. You're going to have to say, "Whole milk.".

Neil Serven: Right, or you'll get two of them.

Ammon Shea: Emily, have you ever come across somebody, whether at a cocktail party or a dinner party, or just shopping at the grocery store who, likewise, has this passion, this affinity for retronyms? Have you ever gotten into a retronym-off with somebody, where you're one-upping each other?

Emily Brewster: I haven't, no. I try to keep it to myself, it's a little embarrassing.

Ammon Shea: It's kind of like the definition of a gentleman. Somebody who knows how to play the accordion, but doesn't. So, we can rework that of... What is a gentlewoman? Someone who knows a lot of retronyms, but doesn't say them out loud.

Emily Brewster: You are listening to Word Matters. I'm Emily Brewster. We'll be back after the break with the history of the & symbol. Word Matters is produced by Merriam-Webster in collaboration with New England Public Media.

Neil Serven: I'm Neil Serven. Do you have a question about the origin, history or meaning of a word? Email us at wordmatters@m-w.com.

Peter Sokolowski: I'm Peter Sokolowski. Join me every day for the word of the day, a brief look at the history and definition of one word, available at merriam-webster.com, or wherever you get your podcasts. And, for more podcasts from New England Public Media, visit the NEPM podcast hub at nepm.org.

Emily Brewster: If you were learning your ABC's a couple of centuries ago, your recitations wouldn't have ended at Z. They would've included a 27th letter: the ampersand. You know, the elegant pretzel-y symbol above the seven on your keyboard. I'll tell the tale of this unique character and its name. The English alphabet was not always 26 letters long.

Neil Serven: Oh, my goodness. I did not know.

Emily Brewster: There used to be a 27th letter. Except it wasn't really a letter, it was a symbol. It was the ampersand. If you look at your keyboard, you hit Shift and you hit a seven you get this beautiful, kind of, S-y... backwards S-y looking letter, symbol, ampersand. And it, of course, means "and." And it was the 27th letter of the alphabet.

Ammon Shea: Did it come between Y and Z?

Emily Brewster: It came after Z.

Ammon Shea: Oh.

Emily Brewster: It came after Z. So, if you were reciting your alphabet, "X-Y-Z," then you would have to say, "Ampersand." And, this fact actually provides the etymology of the word ampersand. In the 19th century, when teaching children how to say the letters of the alphabet, that you would say the name of the letter, and then you would say, "By itself," and the name of the letter again. So, the letter A would be "A, by itself, A". Except that, instead of "by itself" they used the Latin phrase "per se." So, when you said the letters of the alphabet, you would say, "A, per se, A", because A is used as a word by itself also, and then you would say, "B-C-D," et cetera. You got to I, you would say "I, per se, I". When you got to the 27th letter of the alphabet, this letter was actually the symbol that means "and," and so children were taught to say "And, per se, and".

Peter Sokolowski: So, they were speaking the sound of that character?

Emily Brewster: That's right. They were basically translating. The word and, actually, was considered a letter of the alphabet, which is bizarre.

Peter Sokolowski: Yeah.

Emily Brewster: So, they would say "And, per se, and". "And, by itself, and," was the term that they would use to refer to that symbol, which was this 27th letter of the alphabet. And that, over time, got mashed up and mangled and massaged until it became ampersand, and that is where we got the word ampersand.

Neil Serven: So, the "per se" only affected the and at the end of the alphabet that they've been taught, and not the other letters that they were then appending the "per se" to, right?

Emily Brewster: That's right. Apparently those got dropped along the way, probably because they would encounter them when they were doing spelling or writing, right? You would spell out a word like bite. In B-I-T-E, you wouldn't say "I, by itself, I," or, "I, per se, I". I'm guessing on that. But, it's very clear that there would be occasion to refer to these other letters in more context than there were to refer to the ampersand. The symbol ampersand is far older than this. The symbol ampersand... this is very interesting. Keith Houston wrote a book a few years ago called Shady Characters, and the subtitle is The Secret Life of Punctuation, Symbols and other Typographical Marks, and he tells the story of the symbol of the ampersand, which is really fascinating. The ampersand was... again, not the word ampersand, but the actual idea of a symbol for the ampersand dates back to Cicero's servant, or slave come secretary. He was no longer an enslaved person, but was Cicero's secretary. And, he came up with a shorthand system, and he had a single symbol that was used to mean "and." But, that is not thought to be the forbearer of our ampersand symbol. Instead, there is this symbol that was found in ruins of Pompeii that is thought to be the earliest example of the thing that later turned into the ampersand.

Peter Sokolowski: Wow. I'm amazed it didn't become a symbol of bad luck.

Emily Brewster: Well, the symbol wasn't recovered. The Pompeiien forebear was not discovered until long after the ampersand had already become established, right. It was going to, like... "Wow, I guess this goes all the way back to here."

Peter Sokolowski: But, used in a context in which it looked like it stood for "and"?

Emily Brewster: That's right.

Neil Serven: Wow.

Emily Brewster: It was a twentieth century typographer named Jan Tschichold, and he is credited with having traced all of the various iterations of the symbol that is now what we see on our seven key on our keyboards, and traced them all the way back to this Pompeiian symbol that was scrawled... it was graffiti. It was a graffito probably scrawled very hastily, and yet it is what has now become this elegant swooping character that we all know and love. And, the character that began it all, as well as many of the earlier versions, is what would properly be called a ligature. It's a symbol that joins two letters together, in this case E and T, for the Latin word et.

Neil Serven: It's funny that, for one thing, that the ampersand, the word and the concept of "and," was taught alongside letters. And so, to be a part of the alphabet is sort of interesting. I mean, when you think of... we have other symbols now that we don't really regard as punctuation, we regard them as symbols and they have their own names, like the interrobang, or the at sign, or the pound sign, which has a number of names like octothorpe. And, we would not think of those as alphabetic characters at all, right?

Emily Brewster: That's right. Oh, and here's an interesting aside. Ampersat has been proposed as a term for the at symbol.

Neil Serven: I think that would be a good one. When you think of the Roman origin of this... I think of the term et cetera, and how sometimes you see that rendered with the ampersand and the C. Because, of course, the et in et cetera means and.

Ammon Shea: Yeah.

Neil Serven: It is and the rest. Sometimes, again, it's rendered with the ampersand and then a C period.

Ammon Shea: Yeah. I always feel somehow hardened when I come across that. I like that convention.

Peter Sokolowski: Ah, I like it. There's another convention, a printing convention. Early modern printing, I think, even in Johnson's dictionary, even in Webster's dictionary, of just using the ampersand. Because, at this time, of course, they were using a slug for every single character, and it probably was simpler to use the ampersand for the frequent use of the word and. Rather than three slugs, you just use one.

Emily Brewster: That's right, the efficiency of the symbol is key.

Peter Sokolowski: Key to its success, and of course we still use it today, but we're not always as sensitive to space or the difficulty of typesetting as we were then.

Neil Serven: And, when you're handwriting something, I mean, I can't say I go to the ampersand. It's not the easiest character to make. I tend to do this, like, plus sign that is, sort of... like, has a loop, so it's not just a plus.

Peter Sokolowski: I think I, kind of, make a backward three, like a curvy, capital E, and then put a straight line through it, like a dollar sign. I think that's how I do my and.

Neil Serven: That is way more fancy than I think most people do, Peter.

Peter Sokolowski: I must've got it somewhere. But, it's because I can't quite render the character as it classically is formed.

Emily Brewster: In college I remember taking an introductory logic class. I remember somebody in the class asking if we had to make an ampersand, you know, it's used in the language of symbolic logic. And, the professor said "Yes, you do. You can practice this and then you will learn it and then you will know how to do it. You may not use any other kind of symbol. You have to learn how to make this ampersand symbol". So we did.

Ammon Shea: I know what I'm doing tonight. That's my evening's plans all laid out.

Emily Brewster: Let us know what you think about Word Matters. Review us on Apple Podcasts or email us at wordmatters@m-w.com. You can also visit us at nepm.org. And, for the Word of the Day and all your general dictionary needs, visit merriam-webster.com. Our theme music is by Tobias Voigt. Artwork by Annie Jacobson. Word Matters is produced by Adam Maid and John Voci. For Neil Serven, Ammon Shea and Peter Sokolowski, I'm Emily Brewster. Word Matters is produced by Merriam-Webster in collaboration with New England Public Media.

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