Deconstructing Designations: Term, Appellation, Symbol


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In previous posts I have referred to conceptual systems, definitions, and the semantic triangle. Today I talk about designations. Together, they make up the basis that underpins terminology work. ISO 704 states it clearly: “Objects, concepts, designations and definitions are fundamental to terminology […]. Objects are perceived or conceived and abstracted into concepts which, in special language, are represented by designations and described in definitions. A set of designations belonging to one special language constitutes the terminology of a specific subject field.”

ISO 704 goes on to say that “designation acts as a synthesis of the definition. A designation is a representation of a concept by linguistic or non-linguistic means.” So, terminology is not just words. In natural language, concepts can take the form of terms, appellations, definitions or other linguistic forms; in artificial language, they can take the form of codes or formulae while in graphics, they can take the form of icons, pictures, diagrams or other graphic representations. There are three types of designations as defined by ISO 704:

Term: A term is a linguistic designation consisting of one or more words representing a general concept in a special language. A term may be simple, expressed in its basic form, that is, it contains only one root (e.g. “sustain”) or complex, containing two or more roots (a root word accompanied by another word or with added prefix or suffix {e.g. un+sustain+able}). It is typically a common noun or noun phrase. ISO 1087-1:2000 also defines it as a verbal designation of a general concept in a specific subject field. Terms may contain symbols and have variants, e.g. different forms of spelling.

Appellation: An appellation is a linguistic designation of an individual concept. It is a unique concept. It derives from the French word “appeler” which means to name. It becomes unique when you give it a unique name (Nike, Chanel, George Washington, Internet, etc.). In a blog post (see source 4) Barbara Inge says: “Technically, appellations are not translated but remain in their original language. However, an individual concept may have an appellation in different languages.” Good examples are international organizations which tend to have appellations in all languages of the member states, such as the European Union, die Europäische Union, or l’Union européenne”.


Symbol: Designates both individual and general concepts. A symbol should be simple and easy to recognize and, if possible, self-explanatory, monosemic in a specific context, unambiguous, easy and economical to reproduce, and consistent and appropriate, i.e., designed to permit coordination with and differentiation from other related symbols.

Formula: Non-linguistic designation consisting of symbols or symbols related to other mathematical, physical or chemical characters.

NOTE: When the concept depicts a single object, it is called an individual concept and is represented in special language as an appellation (e.g., United Nations, Internet, Worldwide Web) or a symbol (e.g: the Möbius Loop icon). When the concept depicts a set of two or more objects, it is called a general concept and, in special languages, the designation takes the form of a term (e.g., floppy disk, liquidity, money market fund, etc.) or a symbol (©, ≥, $).


Imbalances between designations and concepts may result in ambiguity during concept analysis. For example, in synonymy one concept has several designations (e.g. (cell phone [US] mobile [UK], handy [DE].); in polysemy, one designation represents two or more concepts sharing certain characteristics (e.g. bridge: structure to carry traffic over a gap; dental plate), and in homonymy one concept represents two or more unrelated concepts (e.g. bat the animal and the instrument used to hit a ball, or Apple the brand and the fruit).

Finally, take a look at the presentation called “Rethinking Terminology Standards: 704 & 1087” (from page 15) in which the authors provide a different perspective on designations as defined by those two ISO standards (see source 6).

Sources and further reading:

  1. What can be an Object of Terminological Description in a Term Bank? Igor Kudashev of University of Helsinki. Read here.
  2. Introduction to Terminology Management for Localization by Sorrell Ritter. Read here.
  3. A Flexible XML-Based Glossary Approach for the Federal Government: The Next Generation by Ken Sall. Read here.
  4. Blog entry in Bikterminology: Jump List? Or what should we call it? By Barbara Inge Karsh. Read here.
  5. Language, concept and definition. Read here.
  6. Rethinking Terminology Standards: 704 & 1087 (July 2013) by Rute Costa and Christophe Roche Read here.
  7. Glossary of terminology management by TermCoord. Read here.
  8. Terminology. Tutorial for ISO/TC 211Project Leader, Experts and Delegates, by Andrew Jones. Read here.

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