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Scholar Created Synonyms
Problems of Scholar-Created, Synonymous Subject Terms in Buddhism
Glenn Masuchika
Problems for the Scholars of World Religions
Scholars in the field of world religions have a daunting task of making their works accessible to others.
By the very nature of any global perspective on a human area of academic endeavor, world religions by
definition, must somehow cross not only national boundaries but also linguistic boundaries. There are
numerous journals written in different languages, each language with its own peculiar historical and
cultural dimension which affects the meaning of its religious terminology. Scholars of religions with
similar origins, such as Judaism and Christianity, are fortunate to have a cultural “closeness” of language
that allows meanings of religious terms to be understandable, even though they may be in different
languages (i.e., from German to English, or Greek to Latin). Yet the problems exacerbate when the
geographical and historical distances of the origins of the religions increase, and the religions have
concepts that are alien to each other and the languages used to express the sacred thoughts and beliefs no
longer use the same written symbols.
This proves a particular problem for librarians, especially the catalogers. As scholars publish
their work through the various means of information dissemination, it is the duty of the librarian to make
that work accessible through an indexing system that allows searching and retrieval. The use of full-text
searching in databases is one such method that works well with shorter works ranging from blog blurbs to
scholarly articles, assuming that the full text of the work has been indexed and every significant word in
the work will lead to its searchability and retrieval. The major problem of this method is the naturallyresulting avalanche effect where works only tangentially pertinent to the needs and wants of the scholar is
retrieved. To help alleviate this problem, the editors of journals, magazines, etc., with full knowledge that
Scholar Created Synonyms
the value of their works depends on the ease of their accessibility from databases, will have the citation
corresponding to an article outfitted with the appropriate subject terms, keywords or key phrases, each
indexed and searchable.
In any cross-cultural and cross-linguistic area of study, the difficulty of “what to list” and “how to
list it” as a subject term or keyword is problematical. For those in the English-speaking and English–
reading world, often it is the transliterated word from that “other” language that is used as a subject term
or keyword, especially if the article is in the original language. This proves difficult especially if there are
numerous spellings for a foreign term using a non-Roman alphabet, such as Japanese, Sanskrit, Russian
or Hebrew. For an example, the former leader of Libya, Colonel Muammar Muhammad Abu Minyar alGaddafi, had his surname spelled numerous ways by different newspapers (Muldoon 1986) each a
transliteration from the original spelling in Arabic.
The examples above show the many ways both catalogers and amateurs are working to alleviate
the inherent problems of performing comprehensive searches and retrieving only those works pertinent to
a scholar’s study. However there is another overlooked problem in information retrieval that occurs
before the work is supplied to the database to be indexed, and it occurs as the work is being constructed
by the author.
Scholars choose their topics of academic study and they will also choose what specific terms they
will use in their works. In most disciplines that depend on foreign concepts expressed in non-Roman
symbols, those writing in English will use an accepted transliterated term in Roman (i.e., Latin) alphabets.
The pronunciation of the transliterated word usually sounds similar to the original pronunciation of the
word spoken by a native speaker of that language. This transliterated word becomes the subject term or
keyword and is listed in the citation as a searchable term. However, not all scholars will agree to use the
transliterated term and its various spelling, and instead they will decide that there is a better, more exact
term, a term more amenable to English readers (assuming the audience can read English) than the
Scholar Created Synonyms
transliterated term. Many times, catalogers will translate a foreign term into a close English equivalent or
synonym, and that synonym is used as one of the subject terms. Scholars, knowledgeable of those
synonyms, can decide when they are writing their works to use those synonyms and eschew the
The purpose of this essay is to show that scholars who choose not to use a well-established or
acknowledged transliterated subject term and instead decide for themselves to use synonyms further
complicate the process of doing comprehensive searches and greatly limit the ability to retrieve many
pertinent works. For this paper, the Buddhist term, transliterated into English as “sunyata” will be used.
Literature Search for Problems with Synonymous Search Terms
One could be tempted to include in this study the use of “folksonomies.” Noruzi (2006) defines this
practice as “a free-form tagging… a user-generated classification system of web contents that allows
users to tag their favorite web resources with their chosen words of phrases selected from natural
language” (199). This social tagging, found on computer programs such as, LibraryThing, and
Flickr, allow people who visit and utilize the websites to attach natural language keywords to books,
photographs, etc. based on their preferences. One could argue that this is a form of synonymous
“tagging,” however for our purposes the synonyms should be decided upon by the scholars who create the
material and not “amateurs.”
The library literature has much on the problems of keyword, subject headings, and full-text
searching, however there is paucity on the difficulties caused by synonyms being used instead of
transliterated subject terms. There are only a few that directly address this problem of synonyms.
Beall (2008) wrote about the problems of retrieving all pertinent documents while discussing the
limitations of full-text retrieval. He especially emphasized that “perhaps the biggest and most pervasive
Scholar Created Synonyms
weakness of full-text searching is the synonym problem. This problem occurs because there is often more
than one way to name or express a given concept…” (439). He lists many aspects of the synonym
problem including variant spellings, differently spelled synonyms, shortened forms of words, obsolete
terms, and synonyms from different languages or dialects. The problems of transliterated synonyms were
also noted by Ojala (2011) who wrote about the difficulties of doing comprehensive searches when
foreign words and their translated synonyms are not linked. She goes on to say while variations in
spelling (i.e., the American spelling “labor” and the United Kingdom spelling “labour”) are probably
noted and linked by the cataloger, it is rarer to find other synonyms such as wood and holz (German), war
and guerre (French), or business and liiketoiminta (Finnish) linked, and each word must be searched by
the scholar. She states, “These global anomalies add considerable challenges to the practice of serious
research” (5).
Beall and Kafadar (2008) added empirical data to this theory with a study that dealt with the
problems of full-text searching when the search was “based on a synonym and not on a more familiar
term” (18). Their study consisted of sampling 90 single word synonymous pairs, and searched each word,
both jointly and by itself, in the Yahoo! database. Their results showed that depending on the synonyms
used, the percentage of missed websites varied greatly.
The Concept of “Sunyata” and the Scholar-Created Synonyms
The Buddhist religion has many basic concepts. The more familiar include “Nirvana (extinction of all
desires),” “Samsara (the cycle of continuous birth, death, and rebirth),” and “Zen (sect emphasizing
reaching nirvana through personal adversity).” A more esoteric concept of Buddhism and one written
upon by numerous scholars is “sunyata,” and it is through the discussion of the meanings of “sunyata,”
that will be revealed the many ways English synonyms are created and adopted by the religious scholar
instead of the transliterated one.
Scholar Created Synonyms
Very simply stated, Buddhism emphasizes the elimination of all earthly ties and desires that lead
to continuing birth, death, and rebirth. The elimination, sometimes called “enlightenment,” frees the
human individual to enter a state of nirvana. This concept of elimination is further expanded with the
concept of “sunyata” – a complete elimination of all and everything, no sustenance, no laws, nothing
intrinsic in anything, even no nirvana. Scholars writing in English often use synonyms in their definitions
of “sunyata.” Prebish (2001) defines sunyata as “emptiness or voidness” (242). Keown (2003) uses
“emptiness or nothingness” (283). Iron (2008) states, “Sunyata [is] generally translated as ‘emptiness’…”
(476). Streng (2005) writes, ““Emptiness,” “openness,” “nothingness,” “nonsubstantiality,” “relativity,”
and “the inexhaustible” have been used to translate sunyata.” (8856). Jackson (2004) says, “”The term
sunyata has been glossed as “openness,” “inconceivability,” or “unlimitedness,” but is best translated as
“emptiness” or “voidness” (809).
Scholarly translators have the difficult job of expressing concepts from one language into the
other, and these translators who must intimately understand difficult philosophical concepts of two world
views so to accurately convey one culture’s notion to another are often are good sources for accepted
synonyms. Jan Van Bragt’s translation of Keiji Nishitani’s seminal work Religion and Nothingness
(1982) on sunyata uses the term “emptiness” (316) despite the word “Nothingness” in the title of the
book. Editors of published collections of scholarly articles are also good authorities of accepted subject
terms as they must properly index the terminology of many papers and choose the best term that will be
used through their many papers written by different scholars. For Taitetsu Unno’s collection titled The
Religious Philosophy of Nishitani Keiji (1989), he decided that the proper synonym for sunyata is
“emptiness” (349). Another source for deriving a synonym is the indexes of scholar materials. In the
indexes of both Napper’s (2003) and Mizuno’s (1996) work, the “see” references for “sunyata” point to
the word “emptiness” (844 and 280, respectively).
Scholar Created Synonyms
In their definitions of “sunyata,” the Buddhist scholars, as well an editor and a translator, have
planted the seeds of the problems with English synonyms. Nine have used the synonym “emptiness,” two
have used “voidness’” “openness,” and “nothingness.”
These synonyms help the reader of English to get a fairly good idea of the meaning of the word
“sunyata,” as thesaurus use “like” words and “unlike” words to aid in the scholar’s understanding of a
word. Yet when the synonyms become a substitute in the mind of the writing scholar, each deciding
which of the synonyms to exclusively use, instead of the transliterated word, the problems of conducting
comprehensive searches become difficult. As one can see, the word “sunyata” is not a difficult word to
spell or search for, and it is a legitimate search term in the Library of Congress Classification System,
although it is not found in the Dewey Decimal Classification System under “Buddhism.”
The popularity of the synonym “emptiness,” and the lesser but used synonyms “voidness,”
“openness,” and “nothingness” will be used in this case study to see if scholars of Buddhism have
adopted these English synonyms in place of the transliterated word “sunyata” in scholarly articles.
The purpose of this study is to investigate if using a transliterated term and the four synonyms
chosen by religious scholar causes any major problems to doing comprehensive searches resulting in
inadequate retrievals. Each of the citations on the retrieved lists for each word will be examined to be
sure that the citation pertains to the Buddhist concept of “sunyata,” and is not false retrieval. Then the
lists will be compared to see the degree of agreement between them. The degree of agreement is the
similarities of identical citations retrieved regardless of what subject term is used in the searches. If the
citations among the lists are identical with each other, then the scholar’s replacement of the transliterated
term with synonyms have little effect on the quality and quantity of the retrieved citations. If not, this
Scholar Created Synonyms
will be an indication that synonymous replacements are having a deleterious effect on producing
comprehensive retrievals.
The database chosen for this study is the “ATLA Religion Database with ATLASerials©,” a
database containing articles, essays, and book reviews of a religious and theological nature. The database
is produced by the American Theological Library Association and has coverage from 1908 to the present,
and it indexes approximately 230 scholarly journals. Its contents includes 632,100 article citations,
260,200 essay citations, 575,400 book citations, and full text for more than 442,300 articles & reviews
(Ebscohost 2013). Five words will be searched in the ATLA Religion Database with ATLASerials©. The
transliterated word from the Japanese “sunyata” and the four synonyms for “sunyata” will be searched:
“emptiness,” “nothingness,” “voidness,” and “openness.” These four synonyms for “sunyata” have been
chosen due to their appearance as legitimate synonyms for “sunyata” in the scholarly literature.
The searches were performed in June 2013. The results are measured as the number of citations retrieved
for each search term from the ATLA Religion Database with ATLASerials©:
Scholar Created Synonyms
The following are searches comprised of the transliterated word and one of the synonyms as the
two subject terms. The purpose is to see if any two search terms (i.e., the transliterated word and one of
the synonyms) would retrieve the same citations.
The following searches are comprised of pairs of synonymous subject terms, not including the
word “sunyata.” The purpose is to see if any of these two search terms would retrieve the same citations.
Emptiness/Nothingness 31
The searches show that the transliterated Japanese word “sunyata” retrieved the most citations, at
374, and scholars in Buddhism preferred this term over its synonyms in their published articles, essays,
Scholar Created Synonyms
book reviews, etc. The terms “emptiness” and “nothingness”, 187 and 108 respectively, were also
utilized by scholars. The terms “openness” and “voidness” retrieved the fewest materials, 11 and 7
When the term “sunyata” was searched along with one of the synonyms, there was a decline in
the agreement of citations retrieved. Of the 374 citations retrieved using the term “sunyata,” only 83 of
those citations were retrieved using the term “nothingness” alone, a 22% retrieval agreement rate. The
synonym “emptiness” alone retrieved only 34 of the 374 “sunyata” citations, a 9% retrieval agreement
rate. There are no citations of the 374 “sunyata” citations that are retrieved when using the terms
“openness” and “voidness” alone.
Further Boolean searches using pairs of synonyms retrieved a high of 31 citations when the terms
“nothingness” and “emptiness” were searched together, to a single citation retrieved when the terms
“openness” and “nothingness” were searched together, to no citations retrieved when the remaining pairs
of synonyms were searched together.
The lack of identical citations retrieved shows that there is a problem with scholars using
synonyms instead of the transliterated term. This is not to say that the transliterated term is de facto the
authoritative term, however it does show that the use of synonyms by scholars of Buddhism, with no
agreement among the scholars as to the authoritative term, will cause problems performing
comprehensive retrievals.
Scholars in the field of Buddhist studies or any field of study that depend on using transliterated terms
derived from foreign languages are at a disadvantage. A major problem is the derivation of non-standard
spellings of transliterated words. Even in this study, there were a few non-standard spellings of “sunyata”
Scholar Created Synonyms
such as “shunyata” and “shuyata” found in both the popular and scholarly literature. There are reasons
why scholars use synonyms instead of the transliterated word. Many scholars are aware of the numerous
spellings of these words and the inability of search engines in databases to link them to each other and
perform comprehensive searches. There is also the prestige of establishing a “proper” synonym that
spreads through the academic community and is adopted as a substitute for the transliterated word. No
matter the reasons, scholars who decide to use synonyms instead of the transliterated word in their
scholarly works are in danger of having their publications lost in the invisible academic web.
Beall, J. (2008). “The Weaknesses of Full-Text Searching,” The Journal of Academic Librarianship,
Vol. 34 No. 3, pp. 438-444.
Beall, J. and Kafadar, K. (2008). “Measuring the Extent of the Synonym Problem in Full-Text
Searching,” Evidence Based Library and Information Practice, Vol. 3 No. 4, pp. 18-33.
EbscoHost. (2013). “ATLA Religion Database with ATLASerials©,” available at:
Irons, E.A. (2008). "Sunyata." Encyclopedia of Buddhism. Ed. J. Gordon Melton. New York: Facts on
File, p. 476. Facts on File Library of Religion and Mythology: Encyclopedia of World Religions.
Gale Virtual Reference Library, available at:
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York: Macmillan Reference, Vol. 2, pp. 809-810, available at:
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Keown, D. (2003). A Dictionary of Buddhism. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.
Mizuno, K. (1996). Essentials of Buddhism: Basic Terminology and Concepts of Buddhist Philosophy
and Practice. Tokyo: Kosei Publications.
Muldoon, G. (1986, May 3). “Quadaffi Spelling Bee,” New York Times, available at:
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Madhyamika Philosophy Emphasizing the Compatibility of Emptiness and Conventional
Phenomena. Boston: Wisdom Publications.
Nishitani, K. (1982). Religion and Nothingness. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.
Noruzi, A. (2006). “Folksonomies: (Un)controlled Vocabulary?” Knowledge Organization, Vol. 33
No. 4, pp. 199-203.
Ojala, M. (2011). “Global Anomalies,” Online, Vol. 35 No. 6, pp. 5.
Prebish, C. (2001). The A to Z of Buddhism. Lanham, MD: Scarecrow Press.
Streng, F. J. (2005). "Śūnyam and Śūnyatā." Encyclopedia of Religion. 2nd ed. Ed. Lindsay Jones.
Detroit: Macmillan Reference. Vol. 13, pp. 8855-8860. Gale Virtual Reference Library, available
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Unno, T., Ed. (1989). The Religious Philosophy of Nishitani Keiji: Encounter with Emptiness. Berkeley,
CA: Asian Humanities Press.