Cryptocurrency vocabulary: Genesis of a terminology project

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Posted on 
March 23, 2020
Written by 
Xavier Darras (About the author) , Office québécois de la langue française

When my colleague Louis came to see me in my office, with a hint of a smile on his face, and proposed that we launch a terminology project on cryptocurrency to expand Le grand dictionnaire terminologique (GDT), I didn’t really know how to react: our action plan for the year was already pretty full. I had indeed noticed that the media were increasingly talking about bitcoins, referring either to their novelty or the risks associated with them. However, since I knew nothing about bitcoins, I wasn’t sure whether the topic was a flash in the pan or something more lasting.

This is a constant dilemma in neology. On the one hand, when neologisms refer to a passing fad, there’s simply no need to dedicate resources to language-planning efforts. According to some neologists, only 10% of French neologisms (including borrowings) survive beyond a few weeks. On the other hand, if the trend is likely to spread, then we have to act quickly and propose suitable terms before the linguistic borrowings become widespread.

However, a consultation of recent GDT statistics provided conclusive evidence: many users had queried the existing records on the subject, and the trend didn’t seem to be slowing down. Many users had also searched for words related to cryptocurrency that the GDT hadn’t yet covered. Moreover, legal issues were beginning to emerge with cryptocurrency, an indication that the phenomenon was taking hold. So the decision was made: we were going to get to work!

But as with any project on thematic terminology, we would have to find experts who would be willing to review and comment on our work. We immediately thought of the Autorité des marchés financiers (AMF), because the media often featured statements made by the organization about cryptocurrency. And our instincts were right: the AMF had just conducted extensive research on the issue and developed guidelines on the subject. AMF representatives enthusiastically agreed to collaborate with us on our project and to comment on or correct our definitions, as did Montreal’s École de technologie supérieure and the Académie Bitcoin.

Although we had planned to deal with only about 30 or 40 concepts, the three lead terminologists on the project quickly came up with close to 100 concepts that they felt should be included in the GDT.

In order to define cryptocurrency, you need to understand the terms monnaie fiduciaire (fiat money), chaîne de blocs (blockchain) and registre distribué (distributed ledger). And in order to define chaîne de blocs, you need to understand the terms contrat intelligent (smart contract), and en-tête de bloc (block header), as well as the concepts hauteur de block (block height) and profondeur de bloc (bloc depth), and so on. If you’ve already worked on a thematic terminology project, then you are well aware that a handful of basic concepts often lead you to a growing number of related concepts, which in turn enrich your concept diagram.

Cryptocurrency terminology describes a relatively new reality, which is most often practised outside an official framework. In fact, most of the sources that discuss it are written by individuals and describe concepts that are still poorly defined. For example, there was no consensus on the distinction between cryptomonnaie (cryptocurrency), jeton (coin) and cryptoactif (cryptoasset), or between mineur (miner) and forgeur (forger).

Some English terms had a predictable translation, while others didn’t lend themselves to a literal translation in French. It was therefore necessary to create new terms that worked in French and could be adopted by users. For example, “soft fork” and “hard fork” were difficult to translate into French, so users generally stuck to the English terms. Basically, these terms refer to changes made to the protocol of a blockchain whose result diverges or, on the contrary, converges, with respect to the initial blockchain. We therefore proposed the terms embranchement convergent (soft fork) and embranchement divergent (hard fork), which evoke an image quite close to that of the English terms and whose meaning is quite explicit.

As a result of our work, we have managed to produce a structured glossary (verified by specialists), which gives a good overview of the main concepts related to cryptocurrency. The final work has generated interest among cryptocurrency enthusiasts, as the news has been shared by many social networking sites and the CryptoNews website featured an article on it. What about you? Are you interested? Check out our glossary Vocabulaire de la cryptomonnaie (cryptocurrency vocabulary), and spread the word!

Translated by Josephine Versace, Language Portal of Canada

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About the author

Xavier Darras

Xavier Darras

After working for a few years as a translator, Xavier Darras became a terminologist with the Office québécois de la langue française in 2004. He helped draft various glossaries, was involved with the Réseau panlatin de terminologie and co-authored a guide on how to write terminological definitions. Since 2013, he has managed a team of terminologists who enrich Le grand dictionnaire terminologique on a daily basis.

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