Uncommon Knowledge

Uncommon Knowledge: Do you ride an ordinary bicycle?

May 16, 2013

Probably not. “Ordinary bicycle” is an example of a retronym, or name that is given to something only after a new version appears. For example, before color television was invented, there was no such thing as a black-and-white TV. It was just TV. The same is true for landline telephones, or straight-edge razors. The term “ordinary bicycle” actually refers to the quaint, 19th century model with the giant front wheel and the tiny back wheel. It was given that name after the appearance of the “safety bicycle,” which is essentially the same version we pedal around on today. The safety bike quickly became so popular, however, that the ordinary bike was no longer ordinary and was given a different name altogether. Today they’re best known as penny-farthings, named after two British coins of very different sizes.

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