Disambiguating near synonyms in medical discourse: A multilayered corpus analysis of disease, illness and sickness in the British National Corpus

Stefania Maci, Reka Ratkaine Jablonkai, Marek Lukasik, Daniel Knuchel, Sophiko Daraselia

Research output: Chapter or section in a book/report/conference proceedingChapter or section

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This paper discusses the preliminary results of a corpus-based analysis of three basic health-related lexical items: disease, illness and sickness on the British National Corpus (henceforth BNC) CQP Web platform (2007 XML). Synonymous at first glance, the terms exhibit a certain degree of co-text and context semantic variation; therefore, the lexical items in question cannot be used interchangeably. This in turn may pose some difficulties in inter-lingual translation and language learning, mainly stemming from the lack of full equivalence (or, in some instances, zero equivalence) between the words and their counterparts in some other languages, such as German or Italian. The paper aims to demonstrate how collocational behaviour and semantic profiles can help disambiguate near synonyms along a cline between general and specialised discourse. To this end, the study employed corpus linguistic methods and analysed the BNC across all its text genres. The collocational patterns of the three selected lexical items were examined in the corpus and the semantic profiles of the lexical items were established. The findings suggest that the three health-related near synonyms exhibit markedly different collocational behaviours and semantic preferences. It is therefore suggested that the approach adopted in this study could be applied to help disambiguate the meanings of near synonyms appearing in any specialised discourse at both intra- and inter-linguistic levels. Future research will compare the findings resulting from a similar investigation to be carried out on COCA to see the extent to which, if any, (a) meanings can vary and (b) whether meaning variations associated with these items depend on the interactants (i.e. professionals/laymen).
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationRepresenting and redefining specialised knowledge: Medical discourse
EditorsAnthony Baldry, Francesca Bianchi, Anna Loiacono
PublisherESE - Salento University Publishing
Number of pages24
Publication statusPublished - 31 Dec 2019


  • medical discourse
  • collocation
  • corpus-based analysis
  • statistics
  • semantic preference
  • semantic profile


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