Synonymy and polysemy in terminology
When 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.
Großjean, Ariane, Corporate Terminology Management