Terminology: an Introduction

Terminology Introduction feature

There has been a lot of terminology talk in here, which makes sense considering that we are the European Parliament’s Terminology Coordination Unit. But for all of you who are yet to discover what terminology is all about, we have prepared a short introduction into this comprehensive discipline.

Terminology is the branch of linguistics that studies and analyses terms, while lexicology focuses on the vocabulary (collection of words) of a language in general, and on the art of compiling, writing and editing dictionaries.

Let’s think of it as a proportion in Maths:
term : terminology = word : lexicology

Explaining the difference between term and word is a complex task and opinions can diverge when it comes to find two exact definitions. However, this brief introduction can shed some light on the main characteristics of these two items.

Words are constituents of the language and they are used in common language. They do not refer to a specialized concept in a specific area, and they can have synonyms.

Instead terms are used in specialized languages, by which we do not mean English, Spanish, French, Chinese etc., but the linguistic codes that convey specialized knowledge in a specific area, for example in the field of medicine, politics, chemistry, law, physics, engineering, and linguistics.

Terms are mono-referential and they represent specific concepts in a distinct discipline or a restricted subject field, while words can be used in more than one subject field. We can say that they are “specialized words” in relation to a specific discipline. Thus all terms are words, but not all words are terms.

The etymology of a term mainly stems from Latin and ancient Greek, however it can be much more recent since a language can coin a neologism (new term) when it does not have the adequate term to express a concept yet. Neologisms are quite common and they mirror the political, economic, scientific and social changes of the society as in the case of social network, data protection, restorative justice, covidiot etc.

Is there a connection between terms and concepts?

Yes, since a term is a sign closely associated to a specialized concept. In fact, when more than one term can express the same concept or when the same concept can be expressed by more than one term, we are more likely to have words, rather than terms. The univocal connection between the term and its concept is at the core of terminology.

Terminologists usually do not ask themselves “What does this word mean in this language?”, but rather “If there is one, which term adequately represents this concept, in this specific domain, and in this language?”

In terminology, it is important to define the domain, which is the area of knowledge where the term bears its meaning. In fact, a single term can be used in more than one domain and have then different meanings. For example, profiling can describe a technique used in criminology to identify criminals, or a comparison between consumers in economics, or a specific operation in the mechanic sector. In order to avoid ambiguities, it is fundamental to specify which domain the term belongs to.

How can terms be found?

Since terms are words, they can be found in texts and retrieved from them through a process called terminology extraction. In the past, this process was carried out manually, but now a lot of software, relying on algorithm recognition, can do part of the job automatically.

The aim of extracting terminology is to compile a fulfilling list of terms in a specific domain. In this sense, terminologists usually make a collection of corpora (a large and structured set of texts) and then extract the terminology manually, automatically or combining both methods. After the terminology extraction, terms can be organized according to their semantic and syntactic functions, and conceptual relations can be mapped, as TermCoord did in the Covid-19 event.

Terminology is useful to make the language clear, to enable people to express their thoughts clearly and to communicate efficiently. A clear communication avoids misunderstandings and, in the worst cases, frauds, tricks, and circumventions.



Ali Khan, S., 2016. The Distinction between Term and Word: A Translator and Interpreter Problem and the Role of Teaching Terminology. Procedia | Social and Behavioral Sciences, [Online]. 232 ( 2016 ) 696 – 704, 9. Available at: https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S1877042816313283?via%3Dihub [Accessed 13 May 2020].

Elisa pictureWritten by Elisa Callegari. Translator and linguist, she has a great interest in terminology and formation of neologisms.