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Lex maniac

Investigating changes in American English vocabulary over the last 50 years


(early 1990’s | fashionese | “old-time(y),” “harking back”)

Back to the past! To hell with the future! From these revolutionary sentiments sprang our word “retro,” first used in bulk at the end of the 1970’s to talk about the latest fashions from Paris. Not too many of our new expressions are imported from France, but this one was (“la mode rétro”), so eaters of freedom fries use at your own risk. An early citation from New York Magazine (December 13, 1978) defined it as “the concept of borrowing things from the past, of looking backward for inspiration.” The word was capitalized and placed in quotation marks, presented as decidedly new. And it’s defined as a noun, perhaps even a specific school of fashion. (Cf. this from UPI, January 25, 1982: “the Nina Ricci salon opened the Paris high fashion spring-summer collections by reviving Paris’ favorite ‘retro,’ the 1940s look.”) Before that, “retro” was mainly a prefix, although it had a few specialized uses as an independent word. It was probably most familiar to most of us in words like “retro-rocket,” which has a pleasantly musty 1950’s science fiction sound (a tense voice says, “Activate the retro-rockets now!” just before the music swells). Occasionally it served as an abbreviation for “retroactive,” probably the most common word that began with “retro.”

It seems to have been used almost exclusively in the fashion world for a few years before it began to creep into discourse on other arts and leisures. The nominal usage fell by the wayside pretty quickly as the word edged into everyday use later in the 1980’s. By 1989, there it is in Car and Driver: “Suddenly, retro cars are hot. ‘Retro’ meaning cars that trigger nostalgic feelings . . .” We can all agree that a fashionista term has arrived when it turns up in one of the great automotive magazines. I’d say “retro” was comfortably ensconced in our vocabulary by the mid-1990’s.

It isn’t altogether clear to me what shades of meaning “retro” has. Must nostalgia be involved? How far back does a style (or anything else) have to go to qualify as retro? “Vintage” obviously is a related word; according to my hasty investigations, “vintage” when applied to clothes or cars came into use not long before “retro.” Another word that lies close but means something a little different is “period,” as in “period piece” or “period furniture.” But “retro” is at the opposite end of the temporal spectrum from another new expression: “That’s so five minutes ago!” Maybe “retro” by now has pretty much lost its little ways and degenerated into “old-fashioned.” (That definition strikes my ear as too broad and vague, but maybe I’m just retro.)

Not everything can be retro — some things just don’t lend themselves to throwbacks. You don’t hear much about “retro software” or “retro laptops.” (Though I should point out that one of the WordPress “themes” is called Retro MacOS, designed to make the blog look like an old Mac screen.) Some day, the iPad will be retro, but will there ever be a retro iPad? It seems impossible, because computer equipment that isn’t up to date or better can’t be sold in any quantity. But in a hundred years, who knows? Maybe our demi-robot descendants will be comforted by the reassuringly antiquated touch screen.

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