Terminology holds important knowledge and is a central factor in corporate communication. However, it also takes a noticeable amount of time to manage when several terms unintentionally emerge across different company departments for one and the same product, process or service. For a number of reasons, several terms emerge time and again for one concept, such as when extracting data, maintaining existing data or when new terms need to be added to a database (for which there are already several terms circulating in the company). Synonyms are simply an indispensable part of our language.
“Terminology management means finding the correct term in the specialised and corporate vocabulary.”
To ensure communication with colleagues and clients is professional, with clear goals in mind, it is therefore important to manage this specialised vocabulary, including company-specific terms and phrases efficiently. This prevents misunderstandings, unnecessary research and additional translation effort and costs.
As part of terminology management, specialised vocabulary is systematically recorded, structured and defined, usually with software-based support. As part of this, it is also checked whether synonyms exist, i.e. whether different terms are used for one and the same concept. The aim of terminology management is always to create uniqueness: one concept is represented by one term, one term signifies only one concept. However, this is often far from reality.
Therefore, if there are synonyms, it is important to determine which of the existing terms is most suitable in each case and should then be used. The aim here is to consistently use unambiguous terms for effective and comprehensible communication. It is therefore always necessary to establish one preferred term per concept.
Twelve criteria can be applied to determine which term is preferred over all others. Deutscher Terminologie-Tag e. V. (DTT) has developed and recommended these criteria in its Best Practices. It is important to note that it is not possible for all criteria to be met at the same time. Each company should prioritise the criteria that are important to it.
Adherence to grammatical and orthographical rules is fundamental, as is avoiding illogical terms due to false references. Example: An adjective always particularises the base word. Linguistically speaking, the term “mechanical catalogue of parts” would mean a mechanical catalogue; the correct term is “catalogue of mechanical parts”.
Legal and standard conformity
This criterion involves observing terms that have a legal definition or a definition in standards. Even if they are somewhat uncommon, the standardisation does not necessarily correspond to the linguistic usage and it does not always follow common rules. Example: The standardised term for a screwdriver in German is “Schraubendreher”, but “Schraubenzieher” is more common. In this context, it should also be checked whether any terms are protected by trademark law.
Motivation and transparency
The intrinsic word form of terms – their morphological or semantic motivation – and their important conceptual features must be immediately clear so that they can be understood without further information. Example: When using the terms “wind instrument” or “string instrument”, it is immediately clear what the function is. The term “Steckdose”, meaning “socket” in German, also gives immediate information about the form and use of the item. “Steck” means “insert” and “dose” means a type of box or tin. This makes the meaning of the word obvious. Yet the term “Schuko-Steckdose” meaning “Schuko socket” does not make it immediately obvious what its usage is, and therefore most readers are not familiar with it.
Appropriate for the target group
What counts here is fluency and comprehensibility for the relevant target group. Example: While the diagnosis “hypertension” is common for medical professionals, the term “high blood pressure” is more understandable for patients.
It must be possible to expand the specialised vocabulary through derivation. Example: When deciding between “Upload” and “Hochladen” in German, for example when referring to data or documents, consider that “Hochladen” also enables verb forms and participles, such as “hochgeladen”, meaning “uploaded” in German. Derivatives such as the word “upgeloadet” are not only linguistically awkward, their correct derivatives (“upgeloadet” vs “geuploadet”) are also linguistically unclear.
To sum up
Using comprehensible short forms ensures that they can be pronounced and remembered. Linguistic economy, i.e. the manner of expressing things as briefly as possible, is ever-present, but the shortest possible term must be as accurate as the long form. For example, “app” has become established everywhere for “application”.
Recognition and comprehensibility are decisive factors for a term. If terms are not commonly used, synonyms quickly arise in linguistic usage, as people search for a more common word. The example of “Schraubenzieher” mentioned above applies here as well, as it is simply used much more often than “Schraubendreher”, which is the standardised term. This shows once again that it is not possible to meet all of the criteria at once. If common usage is a priority among the criteria and it is not explicitly a question of conformity with the law or standards, the more common term should be the preferred term where possible when choosing between terms. New terms must fit into language usage inconspicuously and in a way that can be learned. However, usage must always be considered in conjunction with the target group and the subject area.
The use of related terms from specific conceptual systems is important for consistent terminology. Example: If there are already several designations with “laptop” (“laptop holder”, “laptop bag”), further terms should not include “notebook” (“laptop station” instead of “notebook station”).
Pronounceable terms improve memorability and acceptance. Terms that are more complicated to pronounce are harder to remember and this always harbours the risk of synonyms emerging. In this context, using linking elements can help make terms more pronounceable. Example: In German, “Wegventil” (directional valve) would be the correct term, but “Wegeventil” is easier to pronounce.
Pronounceability is also important when linguistic elements are borrowed from another language. Here it is particularly important to pay attention to phonetic usage so that a term can become established.
Terms from the audience’s own native language make it easier to understand and use them. Therefore, preference should be given to equivalent native-language synonyms. The example used above for “hochladen” vs “uploaden” (“to upload” in German) can also be used as an example for this criterion.
In cross-border communication, word fragments that are used internationally contribute to easier mutual understanding. In German, for example “Computer”, is more understandable than the traditional term “Rechner” because it is used internationally. Terms or word fragments from Greek or Latin are also helpful. “Transparency” is used similarly in many languages, at least in speech, so the term “Transparenz” in German can be understood better than “Durchsichtigkeit”. Much more so than for all the other criteria, however, it is clear here that not all criteria can be met at the same time, since internationality and the mother tongue criterion are usually mutually exclusive.
Terms without any judgemental connotations help to avoid misunderstandings. They should be gender-sensitive and non-discriminatory. For example, “firefighter” is gender neutral compared to “fireman” and “firewoman”. An “error in the user programme” puts the focus on the software, whereas a “user error” almost points a finger at the person involved.
As mentioned above, when deciding on the appropriate terms in each scenario, not all of the evaluation criteria mentioned above can always be met. It is therefore also important to prioritise, using your own experience and your own context, which criteria are important in the company or organisation.
As part of this, it is helpful to base the evaluation on the current terminology: How have terms been created so far? Are there already criteria that are given priority and met? What can you conclude from that?
Corresponding rules and prioritisation of the criteria should be recorded in guidelines to make the decisions comprehensible, transparent and, most importantly, reproducible.
Would you like to make your corporate communication clear and effective in every language? Then talk to us. Our experts in terminology, terminology management and terms will be happy to help.