Sumac Sue recently sent this great question:
“Hi. My husband asked me this weekend, just what is the origin of the word retro? Is it short for retroactive, or retrograde?
Then we came up with more questions — does retro refer to a certain era of design, such as the 40s through 60s, or is Victorian every bit as retro as the 50s? How do the words retro and vintage compare in meaning?
If you’ve already talked about this subject elsewhere on your site, just point me in that direction. Otherwise, can you enlighten us, as well as your other readers?”
Of course, I turned to Palm Springs Stephan, font of all real knowledge, to help. He responded immediately, mentioning that he had taken many years of college Latin (of course!).
Here’s what he had to say:
Where ‘retro’ came from
“The word “retro” is Latin. It is used only as a prefix and suggests the past or looking/going backwards.
“But according to Wikipedia … sometimes an accurate source and sometimes not … the current usage of the stand-alone word “retro” stems from its use by NASA in the 1950s and 1960s to refer to retro-rockets, which reversed the direction of a spacecraft.
“But Wiki also says that its use in a cultural context (design, aesthetics) stemmed from the French term “retrospectif,” literally “looking backwards” and commonly abbreviated as simply “retro.” The abbreviated term became popular in France in the 1970s to describe French fashion, and moved into English usage through the fashion-related press. Thereafter, it began to be used to describe the revival of anything from the recent and nostalgic past.
“Wikipedia is a very “iffy” source for valid and trustworthy information, but I have to say that in this instance their explanation seems very plausible.
Proper use of Retro
“‘Retro’ is usually used to refer to the revival of things from the recent past, as I said before. I tend to think of “retro” as applying to something that was popular earlier in our own lifetime … something that we might have had a previous personal experience of or with. For many of us, that includes the 1950s and 1960s. For a smaller number, it would also include the 1940s.
“But the Victorian period is not ‘retro’ since there are very few people around who have first-hand experience of that period (pre-1901, technically). In fact, the term ‘Victorian’ is self-defining.
“Terms like ‘antique’ are more general and can include both early retro and Victorian, as well as other periods. But ‘Victorian’ is very specific, and it is also several eras “pre-retro” (before Edwardian, Art Nouveau, Art Deco, Arts and Crafts, and Streamline).
“Vintage: the usage of this word drives me NUTS!,” Stephen says.
“It is a personal pet peeve. Too many people use it to describe anything that even APPEARS more than 5 minutes old. A VHS cassette tape is now “vintage,” according to some people!!! But the word is taken directly from winemaking (a winemaker is a vintner) and refers to the year in which a wine was “laid down,” or put in wooden casks and stored for proper aging (vin is French for wine, as I’m sure you know, and age is also a French word, therefore “vintage” means literally the “wine’s age.”). In my humble and over-educated opinion, the word “vintage” should never be used without a year attached to it, e.g., “vintage 1958.” But that’s just me. A lot of people, especially on eBay, use “vintage” to hype up whatever they are selling and to make it seem more valuable. My favorite is “vintage reproduction.” I see that one a lot. It’s a meaningless oxymoron that makes me laugh.
…and Antique exaggerations
“Ditto antique.’ Technically, nothing is antique until is ‘of a good old age’ (Oxford Dictionary of the English Language). Cars must be 25 years old before they can legitimately be called ‘antique.’ But I tend to think of ‘antique’ as older than me … and thus over 50 years old. Though I have recently been called an ‘antique’ myself!”
That sounded really good to me, but I also asked the Professor whether the 1980s or even shoulder pads of the 90s could be considered retro. As I wrote, I got the heebie jeebies.
“Scarey as it is,” he said, “yes, things from the 1970s and 1980s are now legitimately ‘retro.‘”
Merci beaucoup to both Stephan and Sumac Sue!