Retronyms

For decades, if not centuries, there were watches. Then came digital watches so there had to be a way to distinguish them; you couldn’t have “watches” and “digital watches”. “Regular” watches must have seemed lame so someone came up with “analog watches.” The same thing happened with guitars. When electric guitars came along and “regular guitars” didn’t cut it, someone came up with “acoustic guitars.”

The most interesting retronym I’ve come across has to do with car transmissions. Cars have virtually always had transmissions that transmitted power from engines to wheels. Then came “automatic transmissions” and, you guessed it, the retronym “standard transmission.” I remember when standard transmissions were, well, standard, and automatic transmissions were add-ons. Now, it’s pretty much sports cars and in some cases very low end cars that have standard transmissions as standard. Even trucks, bastions of standard-ness, are most often rigged with automatic transmissions. You have to place a special order to get “standard”, if it’s even available.

A standard transmission is often referred to as “stick shift.” Why, I don’t know since all shifting levers, whether automatic or standard, stick out from either the floor or the steering column. But I digress.

Automatic transmissions can be locked into lower gears, but with them, you can set the car on “D” and the transmission automatically adjusts the speed/power for the car. But we can learn much from the standard transmission. (Remember? I like to look for what I can learn from virtually any situation.)

The point of the various gears in a car is to allow you to choose the combination of power and speed that you need. To get a couple tons of metal moving, you need power; first gear. (It’s expensive, more gas is used.) Once you get rolling, you don’t need as much power and can work through the gears generating less power but more speed and economy.

If you try to start in high gear, you might get moving but the vehicle is likely to jump and maybe stall. If you leave a vehicle in a low gear, you could make it go fast, but the engine would be revving up, heating up, and running very inefficiently.

So what’s the lesson here? Seems to me we often go through life as if our “transmissions” are of the automatic variety. Things should roll along smoothly and somehow we should automatically adjust to life’s hills, valleys and stalls. Life can set us on a hilly, demanding route and going back to the “standard” model might work better for us.

When do we want to use the powerful, lower gears? Maybe those are the equivalent of buckling down to focus on a difficult or new problem. As we make progress, we can gain some speed, and maybe we “shift” to the higher gears using ideas and actions that have worked for us before or ideas we learned along the way. (Transferring problem-solving skills from one issue to another is a super-valuable approach.) It’s the ability to shift gears this way that will lead to the best performance.

And sometimes, despite even our best efforts and the use of our “lowest gears,” we can still stall or get stuck. At that point, it’s a good idea to call on a “mechanic,” like a counselor, to help up with a “tune up,” or call a “tow truck,” like a trusted friend, to help us get out of the rut.

Gary Lester directs Leadership Warren County and is a counselor with Family Services of Warren County. Warren Gives returns on May 14 and Family Services hopes you will consider making a contribution towards its charitable work.