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15 Retronyms for When You’re Talking Old School

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In 1980, Frank Mankiewicz—then president of National Public Radio—coined the word "retronym," for a term specifying the original meaning of word after a newer meaning has overtaken it. The term was popularized by New York Times “On Language” columnist William Safire in a 1992 column, where the writer wondered what people would call “regular mail” after the advent of email (snails didn’t come up). Retronyms had been used long before 1980, though; here are a few of them.

1. Quill pen

Until metal-nib pens became popular in the early 19th century, “pen” meant an implement for writing with ink made from a wing or tail feather of a large bird. The word comes from Old French penne, which in turn comes from the Latin penna, "feather."

2. Railroad car

In 1869, when Mark Twain described in The Innocents Abroad the “peculiarities of French cars,” he wasn’t talking about Citroëns that turned out to be lemons. At that time, “cars” were train cars. In the 1890s, when the term “car” hitched itself to the automobile, the retronym “railroad car” became necessary.

3. Live music

Although musical automatons, wind-up music boxes, and player pianos were around earlier, before Thomas Edison’s introduction of the phonograph cylinder in 1878 and its worldwide popularity in the following decades, if you said the evening’s entertainment would include music, everyone knew live musicians would be there to provide it.

4. Silent film

Filmmakers had experimented with coordinating recorded sound and movies since 1895, but until the improved sound quality of The Jazz Singer broke the psychological sound barrier in 1927, silent films were, for the most part, known simply as movies or “the pictures.”

5. Human computer

From the early 1600s until the 1940s, when electronic computers came along, “computer” meant a person who performs calculations. Teams of people would perform long and often tedious calculations, dividing the work so that the calculations could be done in parallel. During World War II, some women computers for the Manhattan Project became the first professional programmers of electronic computers, making the retronym necessary to describe their earlier role.

6. Snail mail

Electronic communication created the need for a profusion of retronyms. Safire may not have known the term snail mail in 1992, but back in 1982, someone posted a comment using the term as if it was already familiar to other members of his online newsgroup: “Our Unix-Wizard mail is slower than snail mail these days.”

7. Friend IRL

Before online communication, there were pen pals, but usually when you met people, for the first time or the hundredth time, it was “In Real Life.” And you “befriended,” not “friended,” them.

8. Meatspace

The place where online communication occurs is cyberspace, so some wag came up with meatspace for the place where you interact with others in the flesh.

9. Offline

Once calculating, data entry, and dating could be done online (while connected to a computer or a network), there had to be a word for doing the same while unplugged.

10. Brick(s)-and-mortar store (US) high-street shop (UK)

When we started “Click[ing] here to add to cart,” we needed a way to distinguish online stores from the kind you can walk into. North American usage alternates between “brick and mortar store” and “bricks and mortar store,” while UK speakers favo(u)r “high-street shop.” Speaking of cable-based video-on-demand, the Annapolis Capital for October 6, 1998 said, “Still, the top chains believe the traditional brick and mortar video store will be around for some time.” It’s hard to explain why “high-street shop” began its steep rise about 1970. Perhaps shops on the high street (or main street, to Americans) were being contrasted with suburban malls initially.

11. Natural language

Even before there were computer languages, there were constructed languages like Esperanto and Interlingua, so what were formerly known as “languages” became “natural languages.”

12. Vinyl disk

Offline, other changes created a need for retronyms. Those black spinning platters people used to call “records” suddenly became “vinyl disks” with the advent of compact disks.

13. Landline

When “phone” stopped meaning something tethered to the kitchen wall, we started calling the immobile phones “landlines.”

14. Business partner

Back in the day, outside of special contexts like tournament bridge and ice dancing, when someone referred to “my partner,” you thought business partner. But with changing domestic arrangements for unmarried couples of the same or opposite sexes, “partner” has come to mean life partner, and when you mean business, you’ve got to say so.

15. Film camera

In 1889, Kodak introduced a camera with roll film, replacing those tricky glass plates or low quality paper negatives. Who would ever want anything else? In 1975 Steve Sasson at Kodak built the first working CCD-based digital still camera, leading to the day in 2004 when Kodak ceased production of film cameras (formerly known as “cameras”).

All photos courtesy of Getty Images.

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15 Confusing Plant and Animal Misnomers
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People have always given names to the plants and animals around us. But as our study of the natural world has developed, we've realized that many of these names are wildly inaccurate. In fact, they often have less to say about nature than about the people who did the naming. Here’s a batch of these befuddling names.

1. COMMON NIGHTHAWK

There are two problems with this bird’s name. First, the common nighthawk doesn’t fly at night—it’s active at dawn and dusk. Second, it’s not a hawk. Native to North and South America, it belongs to a group of birds with an even stranger name: Goatsuckers. People used to think that these birds flew into barns at night and drank from the teats of goats. (In fact, they eat insects.)

2. IRISH MOSS

It’s not a moss—it’s a red alga that lives along the rocky shores of the northern Atlantic Ocean. Irish moss and other red algae give us carrageenan, a cheap food thickener that you may have eaten in gummy candies, soy milk, ice cream, veggie hot dogs, and more.

3. FISHER-CAT

Native to North America, the fisher-cat isn’t a cat at all: It’s a cousin of the weasel. It also doesn’t fish. Nobody’s sure where the fisher cat’s name came from. One possibility is that early naturalists confused it with the sea mink, a similar-looking creature that was an expert fisher. But the fisher-cat prefers to eat land animals. In fact, it’s one of the few creatures that can tackle a porcupine.

4. AMERICAN BLUE-EYED GRASS

American blue-eyed grass doesn’t have eyes (which is good, because that would be super creepy). Its blue “eyes” are flowers that peek up at you from a meadow. It’s also not a grass—it’s a member of the iris family.

5. MUDPUPPY

The mudpuppy isn’t a cute, fluffy puppy that scampered into some mud. It’s a big, mucus-covered salamander that spends all of its life underwater. (It’s still adorable, though.) The mudpuppy isn’t the only aquatic salamander with a weird name—there are many more, including the greater siren, the Alabama waterdog, and the world’s most metal amphibian, the hellbender.

6. WINGED DRAGONFISH

This weird creature has other fantastic and inaccurate names: brick seamoth, long-tailed dragonfish, and more. It’s really just a cool-looking fish. Found in the waters off of Asia, it has wing-like fins, and spends its time on the muddy seafloor.

7. NAVAL SHIPWORM

The naval shipworm is not a worm. It’s something much, much weirder: a kind of clam with a long, wormlike body that doesn’t fit in its tiny shell. It uses this modified shell to dig into wood, which it eats. The naval shipworm, and other shipworms, burrow through all sorts of submerged wood—including wooden ships.

8. WHIP SPIDERS

These leggy creatures are not spiders; they’re in a separate scientific family. They also don’t whip anything. Whip spiders have two long legs that look whip-like, but that are used as sense organs—sort of like an insect’s antennae. Despite their intimidating appearance, whip spiders are harmless to humans.

9. VELVET ANTS

A photograph of a velvet ant
Craig Pemberton, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0

There are thousands of species of velvet ants … and all are wasps, not ants. These insects have a fuzzy, velvety look. Don’t pat them, though—velvet ants aren’t aggressive, but the females pack a powerful sting.

10. SLOW WORM

The slow worm is not a worm. It’s a legless reptile that lives in parts of Europe and Asia. Though it looks like a snake, it became legless through a totally separate evolutionary path from the one snakes took. It has many traits in common with lizards, such as eyelids and external ear holes.

11. TRAVELER'S PALM

This beautiful tree from Madagascar has been planted in tropical gardens all around the world. It’s not actually a palm, but belongs to a family that includes the bird of paradise flower. In its native home, the traveler’s palm reproduces with the help of lemurs that guzzle its nectar and spread pollen from tree to tree.

12. VAMPIRE SQUID

Drawing of a vampire squid
Carl Chun, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

This deep-sea critter isn’t a squid. It’s the only surviving member of a scientific order that has characteristics of both octopuses and squids. And don’t let the word “vampire” scare you; it only eats bits of falling marine debris (dead stuff, poop, and so on), and it’s only about 11 inches long.

13. MALE FERN & LADY FERN

Early botanists thought that these two ferns belonged to the same species. They figured that the male fern was the male of the species because of its coarse appearance. The lady fern, on the other hand, has lacy fronds and seemed more ladylike. Gender stereotypes aside, male and lady Ferns belong to entirely separate species, and almost all ferns can make both male and female reproductive cells. If ferns start looking manly or womanly to you, maybe you should take a break from botany.

14. TENNESSEE WARBLER

You will never find a single Tennessee warbler nest in Tennessee. This bird breeds mostly in Canada, and spends the winter in Mexico and more southern places. But early ornithologist Alexander Wilson shot one in 1811 in Tennessee during its migration, and the name stuck.

15. CANADA THISTLE

Though it’s found across much of Canada, this spiky plant comes from Europe and Asia. Early European settlers brought Canada thistle seeds to the New World, possibly as accidental hitchhikers in grain shipments. A tough weed, the plant soon spread across the continent, taking root in fields and pushing aside crops. So why does it have this inaccurate name? Americans may have been looking for someone to blame for this plant—so they blamed Canada.

A version of this story originally ran in 2015.

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18 Tea Infusers to Make Teatime More Exciting
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Make steeping tea more fun with these quirky tea infusers.

Mental Floss has affiliate relationships with certain retailers and may receive a small percentage of any sale. But we only get commission on items you buy and don’t return, so we’re only happy if you’re happy. Thanks for helping us pay the bills!

1. SOAKING IT UP; $7.49

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Amazon

That mug of hot water might eventually be a drink for you, but first it’s a hot bath for your new friend, who has special pants filled with tea.

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2. A FLYING TEA BOX; $25.98

There’s no superlaser on this Death Star, just tea.

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3. SPACE STATION; $9.99

astronaut tea infuser
ThinkGeek

This astronaut's mission? Orbit the rim of your mug until you're ready to pull the space station diffuser out.

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4. BE REFINED; $12.99

This pipe works best with Earl Grey.

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5. A RIBBITING OPTION; $10.93

This frog hangs on to the side of your mug with a retractable tongue. When the tea is ready, you can put him back on his lily pad.

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6. ‘TEA’ ALL LIVE IN A YELLOW SUBMARINE; $5.95

It’s just like the movie, only with tea instead of Beatles.

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7. SHARK ATTACK; $6.99

shark tea infuser
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This fearsome shark patrols the bottom of your mug waiting for prey. For extra fun, use red tea to look like the end of a feeding frenzy.

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8. PERFECT FOR A RAINY DAY; $12.40

This umbrella’s handle conveniently hooks to the side of your mug.

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9. AN EGGCELLENT INFUSER; $5.75

cracked egg tea infuser
Amazon

Sometimes infusers are called tea eggs, and this one takes the term to a new, literal level.

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10. FOR SQUIRRELY DRINKERS; $8.95

If you’re all right with a rodent dunking its tail into your drink, this is the infuser for you.

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11. HANGING OUT; $12.85

This pug is happy to hang onto your mug and keep you company while you wait for the tea to be ready.

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12. ANOTHER SHARK OPTION; $5.99

If you thought letting that other shark infuser swim around in the deep water of your glass was too scary, this one perches on the edge, too busy comping on your mug to worry about humans.

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13. RUBBER DUCKIE, YOU’RE THE ONE; $8.95

Let this rubber duckie peacefully float in your cup and make teatime lots of fun.

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14. DIVING DEEP; $8.25

This old-timey deep-sea diver comes with an oxygen tank that you can use to pull it out.

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15. MAKE SWEET TEA; $10

This lollipop won't actually make your tea any sweeter, but you can always add some sugar after.

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16. A SEASONAL FAVORITE; $7.67

When Santa comes, give him some tea to go with the cookies.

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17. FLORAL TEA; $14.99

Liven up any cup of tea with this charming flower. When you’re done, you can pop it right back into its pot.

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18. KEEP IT TRADITIONAL; $7.97

If you’re nostalgic for the regular kind of tea bag, you can get reusable silicon ones that look almost the same.

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