When a phenomenon becomes important enough, it gets a name. So when you’re analyzing text for netnography and come across a name for a phenomenon, you know it must be important. Prior to that, it’s stories people tell. Here are some examples.

  • Colony Collapse Disorder: Before it was called that, it had a series of names (like honey bee depopulation syndrome)
  • World War I: Before World War II, it was called the Great War
  • The Holocaust: Before it got that name, it was a collection of stories coming out of Europe
  • (By the way, Wikipedia can be a source of netnography. Looking at what new terms people are defining can help you identify trends.)

    The changeability and ambiguity of names complicates the kind of natural language processing that the NetBase engine performs. Synonymy and polysemy are two important areas in linguistics that present a problem for computational linguistics.

  • Synonymy is the problem of the same concept going by different names, for example, “sick” and “ill” describe the same concept. When a new phenomenon arises in multiple geographic locations, different people call it different things, which leads to synonymy.
  • Polysemy is the problem of one name having multiple meanings. A simple example is the word “crane,” which can refer to a bird or a piece of construction equipment. Polysemy occurs because people try to give a name to a phenomenon that will explain itself. To do this, they choose words that borrow meaning. It’s convenient when two unrelated names are combined to form a new meaning. A special case of this is the portmanteau, which is the blending of two (or more) words and their meaning into one new word. Examples are brunch (breakfast+lunch) and smog (smoke+fog).
  • Portmanteaus don’t give rise to polysemy, which occurs when one name is borrowed in its entirety, without manipulation, to describe a new concept. For example, the brand name Tide was borrowed from oceans because the makers wanted to convey something cleansing about tides.

    Synonymy and polysemy complicate the task of natural language processing because it’s difficult to know when two names mean the same thing and it’s difficult to know the sense of a name that has multiple meanings (doing so requires word-sense disambiguation).

    From a forensic perspective, synonymy and polysemy are ritually revealing about cultures. Synonyms can tell you that different groups saw the same thing, and you may even be able to identify what those groups saw based on their choice of name. Polysemy helps you understand how the first people to see the phenomenon interpreted it and named it based on something they were already familiar with.