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What is the appropriate term to use when talking about something that is an “ingredient” of something bigger, and not a hyponym?

  • Leaf is a part of the tree (not a hyponym)
  • Oak is a tree, but not a part of a tree (hyponym)

It appears that the following expressions are a bit confusing: “x est un composant de y”, “x est un élément de y”, “x est une partie de y”, “x est un constituant de y”.

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  • This could be taken all the way to metaphysics and mereology.
    – Frank
    Feb 2 at 15:55
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    I don't find your examples so confusing — what's your issue with them? I would add sous-ensemble to your list.
    – DamienD
    Feb 2 at 20:57
  • The confusion comes from the fact that these terms could also be used for hyponyms. They are not exclusive to some sub-parts of something bigger. Feb 4 at 18:02
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    @NicolasLIENART to me, none of your examples work for hyponyms. Contrast with "un genre de" / "un exemple de" / "une catégorie de". But I also think there is little incentive in everyday language to make that distinction as strongly as you seem to desire. The one is only ever a (tree) metaphor away from the other.
    – DamienD
    Feb 4 at 22:29
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    None of the example expressions apply to hyponyms. You can use them to describe "ingredients" without risking confusion. Feb 5 at 8:12

1 Answer 1

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The official term for the semantic relation of the example you give is a meronym (un méronyme), but this term is linguistic (and computer-science) jargon.

An “ingredient” is something different. It means that it has been used in the process of creating something, but is not anymore part of it, in its original form. Farine is an ingredient of crêpes, but when you eat a crêpe you don't see/smell/hear/taste/touch the original farine anymore, it has been transformed.

As for the words you propose as non-jargon equivalents of méronyme,

  1. «composant» implies that there has been a composition of components, one of which is the subject of the sentence. «Composant» is mainly used in electronics (les composants électroniques) and these are not just parts of a whole, they have a specific articulation that makes the whole work;

  2. «élément» is used when you have a list or a set (un élément de l'ensemble), which also implies that you have many distinct elements, which is not always the case of a meronym. For example when you say “le sommet est un élément de la montagne” it sounds weird because you don't consider a mountain to be a list of elements, one of which is the summit, nevertheless the summit is indeed part of the mountain;

  3. «partie» is IMHO the most appropriate. «Méronyme» comes from the Greek μέρος, which indeed means «partie»;

  4. «constituant» is like «composant»: it is used in situations where you have a complex structure and your item is not simply a part of the whole, but takes part in the structure. In Chomskian syntax you have constituents (les constituants de la phrase), like the noun phrase (le group nominal), etc. A noun phrase is not just any part of the sentence, it plays a specific role and interacts with other parts. These properties are all implied by the use of the word «constituant».

So, in my opinion, «partie» is the closest you can get to «méronyme». The typical example is «finger vs. hand» : un doigt est une partie de la main, «doigt» est un méronyme de «main».

Be aware of the fact that, contrarily to the ⊆ relation in mathematics, meronymy is not transitive : si la main de Chomsky fait partie de Chomsky et Chomsky fait partie du personnel du MIT, il n'est pas vrai que la main de Chomsky fait partie du personnel du MIT. This means that you should not look for some term that is transitive, since meronymy is not a transitive relation in the first place.

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  • Thanks for introducing this term, it's sad that it's considered as jargon. Feb 8 at 17:44

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