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Words Versus Terms: Is There a Difference?
Wayne Ellis, ASTM Standardization News, November 1991

“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 constant–and 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 Webster’s 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 today’s 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 Webster’s 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 acceptability.
   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 inappropriate usage.

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 concept—such is the breadth of language. And in consensus activities, this profusion of credible options causes problems of clarification, revision, and harmonization of standard definitions.

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 committee’s 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 interpretation acceptable.

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