MySMARTerms 4: The onomasiological and semasiological approaches

tongue twisterTry to pronounce these two terms without getting tongue twisted! Sometimes terms are created to make people think that knowledge is beyond their reach, but the truth is there is always an easier way to explain things. Unless you want to get a PhD in Linguistics, we don’t need to do the fancy talk.

Both onomasiology and semasiology study the relationship between words and their semantic values.

Onomasiology comes from the Greek ónoma (name) and logos (study). So it is the study of designations. Its goal is to find the words that describe a given concept, idea, or object. It answers the question “How do you express X? The point of departure for an onomasiological approach is always a concept. When creating a termbase we are presented with concepts and once a concept has been clearly defined we have to come up with a term to designate it. In some cases, there might be more than one term, but there will always be a preferred term. For example, “a phone that can make and receive telephone calls over a radio link while moving around a wide geographic area” may be a mobile phone or a cellular phone, but you need to specify in your termbase which of the two terms is the preferred term (see MySmarTerms 3). This is called the univocity principle by which one concept should be designed by only one term and one term should only refer to one concept.

The onomasiological approach goes hand in hand with synonymy. Typical examples of onomasiological dictionaries, for example, are the thesaurus, the synonym dictionaries, and the word-finding dictionaries. That is, thematic order is preferred to alphabetical order (like in regular dictionaries).

The semasiological approach, on the other hand, goes from the term to find a definition. It comes from the Greek semasia (meaning) and answers the question “What does the word X mean? This approach is mostly used in the preparation of dictionaries (lexicography). Dictionary editors monitor words that people use most often and how they use them, and decide if those words might be worth including in a dictionary. If the word is extensively used, they look for citations that allow them to come up with a definition. Polysemy (several meanings) goes hand in hand with the semasiology principle.

Although it is a fact the terminology aims to guide its work by the onomasiological approach, terminology work in companies that do not manage terminology systematically is sometimes semasiological, that is, the terminologist might be given a term which s/he will have to research, define, translate, etc. However, as terminologists we must always go for the onomasiological approach when creating our termbases.

In summary, onomasiology goes from concept to term and semasiology goes from term to concept. The first one is used in terminology work, and the second one is used in lexicological work (dictionaries).

Is there something else you would like to add? Leave a comment! Thanks!


Sources and further reading:

  1. English and general historical lexicology by Joachim Grzega and Marion Schöner. Read here.
  2. Towards New Ways of Terminology Description: The Sociocognitive-approach by Rita Temmerman. Read here.
  3. The Wikipedia for the definition of cellular phone
  4. The Wikipedia for the definition of semasiology.
  5. How does a word get into a Merriam-Webster dictionary? Read here.
  6. The semasiological approach to meaning. Read here.

5 Comments on “MySMARTerms 4: The onomasiological and semasiological approaches

  1. Pingback: MySMARTerms 4: The onomasiological and semasiological approaches | In My Own Terms

  2. I’m afraid I disagree with the idea that we, as terminologists, must always go from the onomasiological approach, as Wüster defended. The developments in corpus studies and technology mean that starting from a corpus is a valid approach to creating a terminology database and translators are more likely to work this way. However, this does not mean that the onomasiological approach isn’t important. Thank you!

  3. Thanks for your comment Maria. You are right. Terminology has changed a lot since Wüster. We should take this with a grain of salt as they say. I’m sure new approaches will be taken in the future as technology advances and the science of Terminology gains greater relevance. Thanks for reading my posts.

  4. I have another argument (un addition to corpus-based approach) in the same direction.
    My terminology studies often start from my colleagues’ problem with certain word: what does it mean? do we use it correctly in our project? do we need it at all in our project?
    So my work in this scenario is rather semasiological.

  5. Plz this onomasiology I don’t understand how do an onomasiological study.can u plz help,using the word:wristwatch
    N:B-can you send it to my Email

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