Coining a New Term? Introducing It Clearly and Precisely

At times, the vocabulary we have ready-at-hand is not sufficient to describe something we want to explore. Maybe there is a descriptive gap between existing terms and the phenomena you are trying to describe, or maybe existing terms are used in a variety of ways, and you want to be more specific. In such cases, coining your own Key Terms can be a useful way to name a previously unnamed concept and deepen your engagement with your subject. Coining your own terms comes with its own challenges, however, and this entry outlines how to ensure your terms are introduced with clarity and tied in a relevant way to your overall Argument.

Since you are utilizing a new word, it is imperative that you define it carefully and be clear about how it differs from any similar terms that already exist. In other words, you have to justify your use of a new term over a preexisting one. You must also make sure your reader shares your understanding of what the term means by providing a definition and even examples that help the reader understand how the term works. As you revise, make sure that your term is covering all of these bases at the first appearance of the term in your paper.

To demonstrate how to define your coined terms, let’s look at an example of a well-known author performing these steps. This is the opening to Derrida’s essay “Différance,” in which he explains the titular theoretical concept:

‘Différance,’ in simplest terms can be explained as a combination of two words namely, ‘difference’ and ‘deferral.’ This word explains how the meaning of a word is always deferred. The common example I use to explain the idea of ‘différance’ is, when one refers to a pen as a tool used for writing, one also refers what the pen is not. Meaning the word pen on one hand represents the image of a pen but at the same time it refers to objects which are not a pen, namely a table, a chair and so on.

The first sentence of this explanation defines différance in relation to two existing words. Then, Derrida explains how the word is used. Then, he gives an example that makes the abstract concept he is describing more concrete. Taken together, the sentences in this paragraph give the reader a basic understanding of the theoretical concept and an example of how it can be applied.

As you revise, you can use the following exercise to determine whether your coined term is functioning as you intend it to, and whether its meaning is clear. The goal of this exercise is to check for clarity in the definition of your key term.

First, identify the first usage of your term in your paper. (You can do this through a keyword search.) Then go through the following steps:

Step 1: Look for a definition of the word you are coining, hopefully shortly after the first use of the term. If you haven’t written one yet, write one now. Try for approximately 3-4 sentences, following the pattern in the example from Derrida above.

Step 2: Rewrite this definition more concisely (in 1-2 sentences).

Step 3: Try re-summarizing the shorter definition in other words. If this is too difficult, your definition may be too convoluted or you may not have a clear idea of what the term means. Return to step 2 and try simplifying your definition. Now, you have 3 levels of definition for your term: lengthy, concise, and rephrased. This means that you have three relatively consistent definitions.

Step 4: As a final step, search for your coined term in your paper and evaluate your use in each case. Are you using your term in a way consistent with its technical meaning? Are there times when your use of the term doesn’t include anything in particular that would remind your reader of the technical meaning you’ve assigned to it?

In either case, you can use the three different ways of defining your term as a starting point for building more consistent definitional work into your use of the coined term. Indeed, even if you find that your use remains relatively consistent, having multiple versions can help you in other ways. You may choose to swap out your more lengthy description for your shorter one early on in your paper and then return to a more thorough discussion later on; you can even use the summary definition to remind your reader of what the term means at specific and strategic points in your work. In any case, thanks to these new definitions, you should also have a clearer idea of what your term means.

After following these steps, you should have a better sense of how your coined term is contributing to your overall argument, and how its initial presentation will be understood by the reader.

Both “Key Term Inconsistency: Thinking Through the Vacuum” and “Not Sure If Your Meaning Is Clear? Check Key Term Consistency” can be consulted for terms you have coined yourself as well as preexisting terms you are using.