IV Lexical phenomena

Michael Betsch, Franz Rainer and Joanna Wolborska-Lauter

The structure of economic and business terms

  • 1. Introduction
  • 2. The terminological profile of the language of economics and business in English
  • 3. English in comparison with German, Polish and Spanish
  • 4. Conclusion


All languages for specific purposes have developed their own terminology, and, although that is by no means the only linguistic feature that sets them apart from general language, and from other languages for specific purposes, it is undoubtedly the most salient one. In the light of this fact, it may come as a surprise to learn that research on the “terminological profile” of individual languages for specific purposes is still in its infancy, despite promising beginnings as early as the 1970s (cf. Ihle- Schmidt 1983 for French, a Ph.D. dissertation finished in 1978). By terminological profile we refer to the characteristic selection and frequency of devices for the coining of new terms that a language for specific purposes has drawn upon, viewed against the background of the distribution of these same devices in general language and in other languages for specific purposes.

The devices alluded to here comprise the classical triad of word formation, semantic extension and borrowing. As far as the English terminology of economics and business is concerned, we know only of a short discussion by Resche (2013: 8692) of how economic neologisms - “neonyms”, as she calls them - are created (for German, see Hundt 2002; for a German-Italian comparison, Crestani 2010). She follows Algeo (1991) in distinguishing the six basic processes illustrated in Table 17.1, which can be found in a similar fashion, though often with somewhat different names, in most works on lexicology (cf. Sablayrolles 2000, who has assembled 100 different classification schemes from the French literature alone).

The purpose of the present chapter is to provide a first sketch of the terminological profile of the language of economics and business. While terminology has regularly been discussed in disciplines with elaborate nomenclatures such as medicine or chemistry, it seems to have been much less of an issue in the area of economics and business. To the extent that terminology has been addressed at all within these disciplines, discussion has predominantly revolved around semantics and epistemology. This is true of a certain tradition of linguistic criticism in business studies (cf. Kroeber-Riel 1969 for a seminal work), as well as of discussions about the use

DOI 10.1515/9781614514862-017

Table 17.1: Resche's six basic processes for the formation of economic neologisms (The examples between square brackets are ours.)




Creating (ex nihilo) Borrowing

Simple loanword Adapted loanword Calque

[Kodak (brand name)] laissez faire

[economy (from Fr. economie, Gr. oikonomia)] Let the buyer beware (< Lat. caveat emptor)




flat hierarchy ecomanagement





cocos (shorthand for “contingent convertibles”) the three Cs (i.e. credit, collateral, character) TARP (< Troubled Asset Relief Program)


stagflation (a blend of stagnation + inflation)


Semantic change Conversion

[capital (originally meaning ‘cattle')] subprime (adjective > verb)

of tropes in economics and management, which has been a fashionable topic since the 1980s (cf. Section 2.2 of Chapter 18 on metaphor, metonymy, and euphemism). As linguists, we have no intention to meddle with these epistemological questions, but will concentrate more humbly on the language resources to which economists and management scholars have had recourse in order to build their terminologies, with special attention devoted to the central technique of word formation.

There are many reasons why languages for specific purposes develop distinct terminological profiles. Most important is the history of the discipline. That medicine contains so many words of Ancient-Greek origin (or coined more recently following an Ancient-Greek model) of course reflects the fact that Galenic medicine dominated medical theory and practice well into modern times. The disciplines of economics and business, by contrast, established themselves relatively late: Though Aristotle - inevitably - was also the first to theorize on oikonomia, or household management, economics only established itself as an academic discipline in the second half of the 18th century. By then, Greek was of little avail in economists’ endeavours to make themselves understood, and so reach those in power. The same was true for business studies, which became a respectable discipline even later (cf. Chapter 2 on the history of business language).

A second force that contributes to shaping the terminological profile of languages for specific purposes is the highly divergent conceptual necessities of different disciplines. Thus chemists had to find names for a myriad of new substances and compounds. Economists, in contrast, have mostly been concerned with phenomena already named by the speech community, such as investing, producing, storing, transporting, pricing, buying, selling, paying, providing credit and issuing money. It is therefore no wonder that the two professions adopted different principles of term formation. A third major determinant of terminological profiles, of course, is the structure of the language itself, especially its system of word formation. Last but not least, sociolinguistic attitudes also come into play, for example the attitude of a speech community, or of the leading practitioners of a discipline, towards foreign linguistic influences.

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