Word Smith: Term

One of those words with so many nuanced meanings, term is difficult to translate effectively in other languages. In different settings the word has vastly different connotations. In schools the word term is synonymous with periods of time between learning, studying and assessments. Mid-term exams, for example, are assessments at the midpoint of the semester. In math it refers to the numbers and letters in a mathematical expression. In English it might refer to the vocabulary that a particular genre of literature evokes using literary expressions, such as metaphor, simile, hyperbole, and alliteration.

The torment of many a college student is the procrastination around the dreaded Term Paper. The torment goes up or down depending on the topic, the planning, the execution, and the stress of this paper. Term Papers are often assigned in History classes and others where the professor want a summative document turned in on the last day of class to evaluate a student understanding of the material. Some instructors insert a term paper due of the class in place of a final exam.

There are colleges that offer what is called a Jan. Term, referring to a “short course” of optional classes that are available to students in the month of January, which extends the traditional “Christmas Vacation.” The idea seems to be to add some variety to the course offerings and to encourage students to try their hands at something completely different and challenging.

Outside of school the word term takes on completely different connotations: term insurance or prison term for example. And in politics, term means different time periods for Congress (2 years), Presidents (4 years), and Senators (6 years), each overlapping to improve continuity of legislation and will of the people. Some in politics, appointed judges for example, may have Life Terms, not to be confused with prison.

The reference to Term and the gestation of mammals is biological. Taken at face value the time it takes for an infant to grow inside or outside of the mother (egg provider) is called the Term. In governmental parlance the use of Term in humans is controversial, just look at the Supreme Court decision Rowe vs. Wade.

This Witness Post is not meant to take sides on the rights of women. It is intended to highlight the word Term and how it’s many meanings impact all of us: those deemed free and those living in their own prison cells, human inspired and other. For someone to get a life sentence means they have a Long Prison Term with no hope of parole. They will terminate their life in custody of the prison system. As a country which incarcerates more young men of color and the population than any country on this planet, the US has a lot to learn from others.

Most of the references to term in personal finance surround the insurance programs: Term Life Insurance is an inexpensive way to cover the life of a client to provide her/his family with a lump sum, should they die accidentally. It has the connotation of death, as in terminal that is more nuanced than other uses of the word.

From the dictionary, word meaning of TERM:

  1. A word or phrase used to describe a thing or to express a concept, especially in a particular kind of language or branch of study. As in
    “the musical term “leitmotiv.””
    synonyms: wordexpressionphrase, turn of phrase, idiomlocution
  2. A fixed or limited period for which something, e.g., office, imprisonment, or investment, lasts or is intended to last. As in
    “The President is elected for a single four-year term, and can be elected to a second term in the US executive branch.”
    synonyms: period, period of time, time, length of time, spellstintduration


  1. Give a descriptive name to; call by a specified name. As in
    “He has been termed the father of modern theology.”
    synonyms: callnameentitletitlestyledesignate, describe as, dublabeltag


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