Retronyms and Backronyms

gear shift for a car with an automatic transmission

A retronym is a new name created for an old thing, often made necessary by technological changes. For example, we have terms like “postal mail” or “snail mail” for what used to simply be “mail” because email has become the default. What was once called a “transmission” is now called a “manual transmission” since most cars (at least in the US) now have an automatic transmission.

A backronym is sort of a fictional etymology, such as a meaning retrofitted to an acronym. Richard Campbell explains Structured Query Language is a backronym for SQL.

IBM’s first database was not relational. Its second database, DB2, was a sequel to its first database, and so they wanted to call its query language SEQUEL but they were unable to copyright the name. So they dropped the vowels, shortened it to SQL. Later someone came up with the backronym “Structured Query Language.”

The APGAR score for newborns is a mnemonic backronym. Virginia Apgar came up with her scoring system ten years before someone came up with the backronym Appearance, Pulse, Grimace, Activity and Respiration.

2 thoughts on “Retronyms and Backronyms

  1. In Europe most of the cars still have manual transmissions. We say “manual” or “automatic” when we want to specify; but saying “transmission” does not automatically mean automatic (nor manually mean manual).

    Some years ago the powers that be renamed tennis’s Masters Cup, then also known as Year-End Championship (YEC), as “World Tour Finals” (WTF?). Bad idea, but it seems to be standing. (Could we call that a fuckronym?)

    And interesting how I, having learned English as a second language, immediately cringe at reading “sequel to it’s first database”, while native speakers with a command of the language 100x better than mine do not mind. Food for thought on Chomsky’s universal grammar?

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