A word is not a crystal, transparent and
unchanged, it is the skin of a living thought and may vary greatly
in color and content according to the circumstances and the
time in which it is used.
Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes
Most dictionaries allow that word and term are synonyms, i.e.
having the same or nearly the same meaning. Some say that a term
is a technical word; and that a word is an articulate
sound expressing an idea. However, the English language
permits acceptance of other nuances, giving rise to a need for
standard terminology, so that rational intercommunication in science
and technology can exist.
The great philosophical division in lexicography had been for
many years over whether correctness or contemporary
usage should prevail. The debate intensified when, in 1933,
Leonard Bloomfield postulated broad new findings for linguistic
science. These included: All languages are dynamic rather
than static, and hence a rule in any language can
only be a statement of contemporary practice. Change is constantand
normal. Correctness can rest only upon usage, for
the simple reason that there is noting else for it to rest on.
And all usage is relative. By 1952, these postulates had
been accepted by the National Council of Teachers of English as:
1) Language changes constantly; 2) Change is normal; 3) Spoken
language is the language; 4) Correctness rests on usage; and 5)
All usage is relative.
The debate further intensified in 1962 when a storm of
abuse greeted the appearance of Websters Third New International
Dictionary. Its editor, Philip Gove, said The
responsibility of a dictionary is to record the language, not
set its style. For us to attempt to prescribe the language would
be like Life (magazine) reporting the news as its editors
would prefer it to happen. Thirty years later, the furor
has largely abated; it is now generally accepted that todays
common-language dictionaries define words by contemporary usage.
But this practice is not acceptable in defining terms in science
and technoloy. For example, density has three meanings in Websters
Ninth New Collegiate Dictionary, only one of which is the
concept, the quantity per unit volume, unit area, or unit
length. The other meanings are, the quality or state
of being dense, and the degree of opacity of a translucent
medium, or the common logarithm of the opacity. No doubt
there are slang meanings in use and working their way upward to
Right now, in some ASTM technical committees,
there is a discussion of usage that incorrectly (it is said) defines
density. Usage says it is weight per unit volume, while theory
says it is mass per unit volume. Of course, discussion of the
difference between concepts of mass and weight is much broader
than usage in the definition of density. Nevertheless, standard
definitions avoid fuzziness of meaning brought about
In ASTM terminology circles there is an understanding
that a term is indeed a technical work expressing a concept or
idea; but it is more that just a word. It represents a complex
product of reflective thinking. We are not standardizing words
but technical terminology, using the consensus process.
When there is consensus on the meaning of a concept; for example,
density; its meaning is described ex- actly in appropriate wording.
But note that there is not a single set of words exclusively.
In the Compilation of ASTM Standard Definitions there are
four alternatively-worded definitions for density expressing the
identical conceptsuch is the breadth of language. And in
consensus activities, this profusion of credible options causes
problems of clarification, revision, and harmonization of standard
As committees respond to voter comments in balloting on proposed
definitions, many times clarifying changes are made (by committee
consensus) to remove ambiguity of wording without changing the
concept being defined. However, strict editing rules may require
reballoting to assure that consensus has been reached. This unnecessarily
prolongs the standardization process.
Here, the difficulty lies in the committees acceptance
of changed wording that improves the quality of the definition,
while editors look only at a change in wording. The Committee
on Terminology is addressing this question of how to make acceptable
the improved wording without violat-ing editorial precepts.
In terminology standardization, words and terms are not synonyms.
The transparent, crystal technical term can be preserved
for rational communication, while the changing word can make contemporary