This paper sets out to examine the results of a corpus-based investigation into the semantic development of some synonyms of the term petroleum in 19th-century English. This research forms part of a larger project on diachronic changes in terminology, and on the making of specialized lexicons, especially in the fields of ecology and the earth sciences. The prescriptive school of thought in terminology holds that terms should be fixed items and should not be prone to synonymic variation. Terminologists and translators have been trained to embrace terminological standardization, to disparage synonymy in favour of monosemy, and to employ consistency rather than lexical variation. However, despite this widespread assumption that synonymy is something to avoid in specialized languages, since it may hamper effective communication between specialists, a number of studies have revealed that even within the confines of specialized communication, synonymic variation does indeed exist. One specialized field of knowledge in which synonymic variation is known to be prevalent is medicine, but it is also the case in natural sciences. The article shows that, when they are examined diachronically, synonyms do have a role to play in the shaping of specialized lexicons. The paper discusses three aspects of synonymic variation: namely, first, the semantic 'flexibility' of several terms which were frequently used in the 19th-century lexicon of petroleum geology (e.g., naphtha, bitumen, tar, pitch, asphalt); secondly, the simultaneous co-existence and then the disappearance of 'occasional' or 'temporary' synonyms of the term petroleum (e.g., Rangoon petroleum, mineral pitch, rock oil, Trinidad bitumen, Seneca oil, etc.); and thirdly, the inclusion of these synonyms in some dictionaries and encyclopedias of the time.
Selected Proceedings of the 2008 Symposium on New Approaches in English Historical Lexis (HEL-LEX 2)
edited by R. W. McConchie, Alpo Honkapohja, and Jukka Tyrkkö
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