Faculdade de Letras da Universidade do Porto - OCS, 15th INTERNATIONAL ISKO CONFERENCE

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Lynne Bowker

Last modified: 2017-12-19


There is a relatively new field of linguistic activity known as terminology, which is concerned with the collection, description, processing and presentation of terms, i.e. lexical items belonging to specialized domains of knowledge. Discussions about the need for such a field of activity began as far back as the 1930s, when an Austrian engineer named Eugen Wüster emphasized the need for clarity and precision in technical communication. However, it was not until the 1970s that the field of terminology as we know it today truly began to take shape.


In bilingual Canada, terminology was closely tied to translation. Although terminology is firmly rooted in linguistics, there is recognition that it is an interdisciplinary field that has drawn on cognitive science, computer science, and information science, among others. However, no prior research has explicitly identified ways in which knowledge organization (KO) methods were adapted and integrated into the working practices of Canadian terminologists during the nascent years of this field. This research explores how KO contributed to the formative years of terminology, focusing in particular on its contributions to the development of an initial methodology for conducting terminology work in Canada in the 1970s and early 1980s. Moreover, since the work of developing methods for Canadian terminologists was carried out and documented almost entirely in French, we aim to make the KO contributions known to a broader audience by reporting on this study in English.


Between 1973 and 1981, five seminal works on terminology were published in Canada in French. Our approach to learning more about how KO influenced the early development of terminology in Canada was to closely read these publications to identify themes that reveal underlying contributions from KO.

Main results

Understanding the concepts in the specialized subject field under investigation, and particularly the relationships between them, became a central objective in terminology work. Before there was an established methodology for carrying out terminology work in Canada, early terminologists experimented, drawing mainly on approaches used by 19th-century lexicographers. However, lexicographers work semasiologically, meaning they begin by identifying the lexical item and work towards establishing its definition (i.e., lexicographers ask “What does the word X mean?”). It became clear that this approach had limitations for terminology, where it was important to understand the subject field as a whole rather than considering the terms in isolation. A more appropriate question for terminologists seemed to be “What do you call X?” which takes the concept as the starting point, rather than the term. Therefore, early terminologists began looking beyond lexicography to draw inspiration from other disciplines, including information science. An examination of the contents of Boutin-Quesnel et al.’s (1979) glossary of terminology reveals entries relevant to KO, which have been borrowed or adapted from information science:

  • analyse notionnelle (subject/concept analysis)
  • classement systématique (subject order)
  • index (index)
  • notion (concept)
  • relations internotions (semantic/conceptual relations)
  • terme générique (broader term)
  • terme spécifique (narrower term)
  • terme privilégié (authorized term)
  • terme rejeté (non-authorized term)
  • vedette (heading/entry term)

KO techniques proved useful to terminologists in multiple ways, including helping them to produce a conceptual map for the subject field under investigation, to identify the conceptual relations needed to create definitions and establish interlingual equivalents, and to present the results of their research in a structured format.

Subject field breakdown

For instance, Corbeil (1973, 28) advises that an important early step in a terminology project involves delimiting the domain that will be the subject of the research, indicating that it is not sufficient to simply give the name of the domain, but rather, it is necessary to clearly specify the subdomains that will be taken into account, as well as those that will be excluded from the project. He suggests taking an existing classification, such as the Universal Decimal Classification, as a starting point.

Auger and Rousseau (1978, 17) take things further, noting that for each subdomain, the terminologist should prepare a structured list of concepts, which will make it easier to get an overview of the subject field and to understand the conceptual relations. They also suggest consulting thesauri and subject classifications as models to help guide this process.

Dubuc (1978, 36) is the first to use onomasiological to describe the concept-to-term direction of terminology research, and he advocates strongly for the elaboration of a concept system that illustrates conceptual relations. This concept system provides vital information for later stages of the terminology project, such as definition construction and the establishment of interlingual equivalence.

Establishing definitions and interlingual equivalents

Corbeil (1973, 26) notes that definition construction is one of the most complex aspects of terminology work and explains that an effective way to define a term is to refer to its broader term and to indicate how it differs from its coordinate concepts. This method is also advocated by Dubuc (1978, 98), and to do this, the terminologist must have a good understanding of the semantic relations in play. Indeed, Boutin-Quesnel et al. (1979, 27) provide the following definition of the term définition (definition), drawing attention to the importance of conceptual relations for definition construction: “Definition: a statement that describes a concept and allows it to be differentiated from other concepts within a concept system” [our translation].

Meanwhile Dubuc (1978, 72) explains, and Rondeau (1981, 33) confirms, that the way to establish whether a French and an English term are equivalent is to determine whether they both refer to the same concept. This requirement comes out clearly in the definition for équivalent (equivalent) provided by Boutin-Quesnel et al. (1979, 20): “Equivalent: each of the terms of different languages that designate corresponding concepts” [our translation]. Hence, once again, understanding the place of a concept within the concept system is critical.

Systematic presentation of entries

The emphasis on KO also extends to organizing glossary contents. Unlike lexicographers, who favour alphabetical ordering, Corbeil (1973, 67) and Auger and Rousseau (1978, 46) encourage a systematic organization for terminology glossaries, identifying a number of benefits. For example, just as a conceptual map could help terminologists to gain a better understanding of the overall subject field, so too could a structured presentation help glossary users to better understand how the different concepts relate to one another. Corbeil (1973, 68) recognizes that systematic ordering requires a more complex design and a greater effort on the part of the terminologist, but he argues strongly that it is more advantageous for users.

Boutin-Quesnel et al. (1979) put this into practice when producing the glossary of terminology. The glossary adopts a systematic ordering for its entries, which are divided into three main categories (terminology theory, methodology, and types of terminology collections), with further levels of subdivision. The systematic presentation is accompanied by an alphabetical index.


Methodology has an extremely important place in terminology, and the strong focus on methods and on bilingual comparative terminology are distinguishing features of the early Canadian school. While terminology’s linguistic roots remain evident, there is no denying that this young field also owes much to KO, which inspired many elements of the concept-oriented methodological framework needed to carry out terminological research effectively. In Canada, the works that document the development of this nascent field were all written in French. As such, the contribution made by KO during the critical early years may not be widely recognized by the broader information science community. By reporting on these activities here, we hope that we have revealed more fully the contribution made by KO to the initial development of a terminological methodology in Canada.


Auger, Pierre, & Louis-Jean Rousseau. 1978. Méthodologie de la recherche terminologique. Québec : Office de la langue française.

Boutin-Quesnel, Rachel, Nycole Bélanger, Nada Kerpan, & Louis-Jean Rousseau. 1979. Vocabulaire systématique de la terminologie. Montréal : Office de la langue française.

Corbeil, Jean-Claude (Ed.). 1973. Guide de travail en terminologie, Cahiers de l’Office de la langue française No. 20. Montreal, Québec : Office de la langue française.

Dubuc, Robert. 1978. Manuel pratique de terminologie. Brossard, Québec : Linguatech.

Rondeau, Guy. 1981. Introduction à la terminologie. Boucherville, Québec : Gaëtan Morin.