Synonymy and polysemy in terminology

mouseWhen we deal with concepts, we also deal with terms in different forms. If we think of dictionaries, they put all concepts in one entry, while in a termbase we register each concept on separate term entries, a key difference between lexicography and terminology.

The terminologist carries out a ranking exercise, so to speak, in which s/he has to classify synonyms as “preferred”, “admitted”, or “deprecated” terms, making sure that they are all kept in a single entry to avoid doublettes. For example, which term should you use: shortcut key, hotkey, keyboard shortcut, access key, accelerator key, keyboard accelerator?

And if a termbase is well maintained, s/he might have to replace some of them with updated forms and register the previous form as “obsolete”. For example, at one point “periodontosis” was dropped in dentistry in favor of “periodontal disease”.

We may also have to deal with quasi-synonyms—terms with approximate meaning (disease/disorder, earthquake/earth tremor, speech-impared/stammerer). Therefore, careful analysis should be made to avoid confusion. In the words of Ariane Großjean, “terminology management must always aim at the unambiguous and clear use of terms or order to allow for a smooth communication. Thus, synonymy should be avoided in terminologies”.

A polysemic term has more than one meaning, i.e. different concepts are expressed by one term with different meanings but with the same etymological root. It is a very common occurrence in reterminologization (when a term adopts a new meaning, e.g., mouse-rodent and mouse-device) and it may lead to ambiguity if not clearly differentiated. Again, making sure that the term is registered separately when it has different meanings is key to avoid doublettes.

Identifying polysemy may be challenging if you don’t have sufficient technical knowledge or if you do not have access to the context. In the legal field, for example, “disposition” could have four different meanings (1) transferring something to another´s possession, (2) a final settlement of a case by court, (3) a provision in a statute, or (4) personal temperament of traits of character. Radek Vogel says that ambiguity may also arise when dealing with different coinages in British and American financial terminologies; for example, “own shares”, “debtors”, and “provisions” are the British equivalents for the American terms “Treasury stock”, “accounts receivable”, and “allowances”.

The message here is analyze and classify your terms following terminology principles to ensure consistency and avoid ambiguity. For a more extensive review of these and other forms of semantic relations of lexical units, I recommend taking a look at the sources below.

Sources and further reading:

Sevilla Muñoz Manuel. Semantic aspects of terms

Schmitz, Klaus-Dirk. Terms in texts and the challenge for terminology management.

Chromá, Marta. Synonymy and polysemy in legal terminology and their applications to bilingual and bijural translation

Großjean, Ariane, Corporate Terminology Management

Vogel, Radek. Synonymy and polysemy in accounting terminology: fighting to avoid inaccuracy.



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4 Comments on “Synonymy and polysemy in terminology

  1. Dear Patricia, thank you for these thoughtful information. Yet we must not forget the thin edge between polysemy and homonyms. We have: homophones and homographs. Homophones: words phonetically identical but having different meanings (i.e. above mentioned “”disposition” is conclusive) and homographs: words identical written, but having different pronunciation (i.e. emphasis in English-UK and English-Ireland or Australian etc.)

  2. Great point, Simona. I meant to write more about homophones, but you comment is a great complement for my readers. I will try to write a separate blog post about them in the following days. Thanks a lot for your comment. 🙂

  3. Simona: I don’t think the difference between polysemy and homonymy is relevant when it comes to terminology (also Klaus-Dirk Schmitz pointed this out in his presentation). I mean if it’s a different concept it’s a different concept, no matter the etymology of the two words. I’m totally fine with calling them all polysemes

  4. Thanks for your comment Anna. I’m glad that you are able to contribute to the conversation.

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