Skip to content
Home » The ever-changing world of terms

The ever-changing world of terms

Word shift. Loanwords. Portmanteau words. What sort of terms are these? Well, these are the terms we use to describe changes in the vocabulary of a language and therefore changes to the language itself. Language changes constantly and this extends from the level of words all the way to sentence structure. Have you ever used a word that is outdated, or have you ever heard teenagers speaking together and found you could make no sense of what they were talking about? More or less, we all have been there, but have we ever thought that the process of language change that this represents and the importance of choosing the right words can make all the difference in  communicating more effectively? Aside from the oratorical skills that make someone effective in their communication, opting for the correct terms (words, compound words, multi-word expressions) to describe for example a situation, a process, a product, or even a person, plays a vital role in communicating the right meaning. The discipline of terminology has this purpose: to provide us with the correct terms in order to maximize accuracy within a language and across languages as well. 

In the following interview Mrs Patricia Brenes, terminology professional and also head of the eTerminology group in Translation Commons , explains what terminology entails and why  terminology is so vital. 

  • Mrs. Brenes, you are managing the Terminology group in Translation Commons. What is this group about and what does it mean to you to lead this group?  

The Translation Commons Terminology Group is a team of volunteers who come together to gather and share knowledge and resources related to terminology and terminology management, for use by terminologists, translators, students, language experts, and anyone interested in learning about terminology. I was one of the first persons to join this group and I started leading some of the roles, but we are multifaceted, and now we have more volunteers playing major roles in different subgroups. 

  • You are also a terminology professional who blogs about the subject. Could you please tell us a bit more about yourself and what has driven you to get involved with terminology?

Thanks for giving me this opportunity to talk about terminology. My interest in this field began years ago when I took a webinar on the subject, just out of curiosity and to add new skills to my resume. I think I signed up for one or two more webinars and, at one point, I asked where I could get formal training. The instructor mentioned TermNet, which offers certifications. I immediately signed up and my final project was creating a blog, In My Own Terms. My motivation was actually born out of necessity: while I was learning about it, I realized that there were not many blogs or websites that provided information or training about the basics of terminology, which I needed to complement my knowledge while doing the certification. I also bought books but, for a beginner like me, they were too technical. At the time, there were a few other terminology blogs such as TermCoord headed by Rodolfo Maslias, Wordlo by Maria Pia Montoro, and terminologia etc. by Licia Corbolante. There was also an inactive blog,, by terminologist Barbara Inge Karsch, which also was a great source of information on practical terminology cases. So, each of them was key in my learning process and all of us were approaching terminology from different points of view, so to speak. Learning about all of these other blogs, and even personally meeting these and other great terminologists years later in Luxembourg (the list would be too long to mention here), motivated me to keep writing and sharing the “terminology love”, the expression that I used to bring terminology to others, particularly via social media. If it had not been for this great support network, I would have probably left it at a few blog posts. I want to believe that IMOT is an access point to the world of terminology to those who, like me, started from zero knowledge and then got hooked! My motto is and will always be “Terminology for beginners and beyond”, which is the reason why I have tried to keep it simple but also appealing to those who already know a little bit about terminology. 

  • What is terminology and how has the traditional concept of terminology evolved in the last years?

There are a lot of definitions written by different authors, all of them valid, since you can define it from different perspectives (as a practice, as a field of study, etc.) and expand it as much as you want. When people ask me what terminology is, especially if it is someone from another field, I always remember terminologist Uwe Muegge (currently head of the terminology team at Facebook) who once defined it very simply as “a collection of words that have a special meaning in a given subject field”. I have always kept that definition in mind to remind myself that we should keep things simple. Also, when someone asks me what a terminologist does, I try to explain it as a person who gathers technical documentation, extracts its terminology, and organizes it in a structured way in the form of a database for easy access by language experts. 

More than an evolved definition, I would say that there are evolving challenges in the world of terminology, which force us to highlight the importance of terminology even more. In the last few years, we have witnessed an increased use of artificial intelligence and neural networks, but terminology is still an issue that the new translation software has not been able to solve. Also, we have the “big ol’ problem” of selling the idea of terminology to management who  sees it as an expense rather than an investment. We are facing old and new challenges and this is why we should keep promoting terminology at all levels. 

  • What are the benefits of terminology in terms of cross-cultural communication?  

The goal of terminology is to produce correct and consistent translations and, by doing so, to avoid miscommunication. When you add culture to the mix, the importance of terminology is even greater. Cross-cultural communication is key to global businesses whether it is to develop new technologies or provide improved services or goods. It requires a profound understanding of how cultures perceive the world and communicate with each other. This exchange cannot be achieved without multilingual resources that are reliable and accurate to make sure that we all “speak the same language”.

  • How is a term identified and validated, and when can a term be considered obsolete? For example, some have suggested that the term “emerging markets” should be replaced by Fast-Expanding Markets (FEMs). 

I think there are three questions in one here. The first one is how we identify terms, that is, how do we know that a term is a term. Again, I want to refer to the experts. Terminologist Kara Warburton said that our termbase should include terms that translators actually need, and basically just about any terms  that can drive quality, consistency, and productivity in the translation process. Again, a very concise and simple explanation. Going back to Uwe Muegge, he once said that he used to tell his students that terms are the words that clients particularly care about. So basically the terms that you use are the terms that you or your client need. Every business is different and so every termbase should accommodate your needs or that of your client, of course following terminological best practices and principles.

The second question is how terms are validated. Validation is one of the key steps in the terminology work process. Ideally, a term is validated by a terminologist in coordination with a translator or a subject-matter expert, or both. Filling your termbase with terms that are not validated could give you a lot of headaches in the long term. Once your terms are validated and included in the termbase, you need to give it continuous maintenance to avoid double entries or what is called “doublettes”, which happens, for example, when a term becomes obsolete.

It’s interesting that you are asking about obsolete terms. Earlier this year I read an article titled “The Outdated Language of Space Travel” in The Atlantic, in which astronaut Peggy Whitson said that she cringed a little bit every time she heard that the spaceflight program was “manned”, and the article explained how the terminology used in space travel is no longer accurate. So there are many reasons that make a term obsolete. As in this example, history changes and our new reality changes. Terms become politically incorrect and no longer fit that reality; older terms that used to describe very concrete situations become old-fashioned or unrecognizable when the relevant situation disappears; or terms become “fossilized” and are displaced by newer terms. Australian Journalist Benedict Brooke once said that “words die when they are no longer at the heart of our language.”

It’s also relevant to say here that when you are replacing a term that has become obsolete (meaning your validation team or you decide that there is now a more accurate and updated term) you have to make sure that you delete the outdated entry and add a field or note in your new updated entry that includes your obsolete term. We usually do this under the field “deprecated term” or “prohibited term”. So, validating your terms and keeping your termbase clean of obsolete or double entries is always an ongoing job for the terminologist. This is why a terminologist will never be out of a job!

  • Do you think terminology goes beyond language and, if so, what role does it play in the global economy?

When you manage terminology correctly it does have a huge impact not only in the way people communicate but also in the way goods and services are exchanged. Economic activities around the world are diverse and interconnected and bring about many challenges in the language field; therefore, communication between countries and regions has to be accurate and effective. Breakthrough technologies and fast internet make this communication issue even more challenging, and translating content per se is no longer enough: We now need to take into consideration every culture and its unique characteristics. Terminology adaptation and management are at the center of localization, which is needed to create multilingual content for global markets.

  1. Mrs Brenes, before we end this interview, I would like to thank you for enlightening us about the significance of terminology in our modern life. However, my last question concerns the future of terminology. In your opinion, what needs to be done to take terminology to the next level, and is there a potential for accomplishing this within the TC group?

I believe there is a bright future in terminology, since it is a very young field. I think the new technological challenges will put terminology in the center of attention of many other fields too, but we can also help share the knowledge by talking about it and promoting it at all levels. The Terminology Group is expanding and I think that it plays, and will keep playing, a key role in the whole TC effort to help language professionals and experts learn about this fascinating subject.

Vasiliki Korfiati
Vasiliki Korfiati

Vasiliki is a freelance translator from English and German into Greek with an interest in languages, pedagogy, literature, arts and tourism. She studied German Literature and Language and got a MA in Translation Studies.

Featured image by Joanna Kosinska on Unsplash