Motivated (or transparent) terms

When reading about the formation of new terms (neology), you might come across the term “motivated” or “transparent” term. A motivated term represents key features of a concept. Sonneveld and Loening on Chemical Neologisms note that “A term is motivated when a language user is able to deduce, at least partly, the meaning of the term from the analysis of its components. Words that respect the morphological laws are generally said to be motivated”. Termium defines it as “transparent term”, as follows: “A term whose meaning is readily understood from the form or meaning of its main components, e.g. energy-efficient building”.

In her article “High Tech Translation in the Information Age”, Heather Leighton provides an example with the term “thesaurus” and its translation into Spanish: “She gave me the example of the term “thesaurus” which is a word-processing feature in the software that her company markets. Pointing and clicking on the “thesaurus” arrow gives access to a drop-down menu of synonyms (called sinónimos) that the end user can choose from. The Spanish translation of “thesaurus” poses a problem since it is a word that designates two different concepts: thesaurus and treasure. In order to avoid this ambiguity, terminologists and translators choose a key characteristic of the concept as a suitable term. In this particular case, sinónimos was chosen instead of tesoro. Translators and terminologists refer to this as a motivated term: a term which represents an essential characteristic of the concept.”

And just as we have motivated terms, we also have unmotivated terms. Take for example, the financial term “greenmail*”. You would not be able to figure out its meaning just by analyzing its components; unless we start receiving some type of environmentally friendly mail in our mailboxes!

Sources and further reading:

Standardization of Technical Terminology: Principles and Practices. The Road to a Truly Authoritative Chemical Dictionary, Kurt. L. Loening

Essays of Terminology, Alain Rey


* Greenmail is the process in which a buyer acquires a large number of a target company’s shares and threatens a hostile takeover but, instead, forces the target company to then buy back their shares at a higher price. (Divestopedia)

2 Comments on “Motivated (or transparent) terms

  1. Interesting. May I add another source? In Standardization, transparency is one of the principles followed in the formation of terms and appellations. So, in ISO 704:2009 we read: “A term or appellation is considered transparent when the concept it designates can be inferred, at least partially, without a definition or an explanation. In other words, the meaning of a term or appellation can be deduced from its parts. For a term to be transparent, a key characteristic – usually a delimiting characteristic – is used in the formation of the term or appellation itself.”
    As for the example of “thesaurus”, we also have the same problem in greek, that is by thesaurus we mean the treasure as well as the controlled vocabulary, but we have kept the same designation “θησαυρός” for both concepts.

  2. Of course! Thanks for the added source, Katerina.

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