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I knew a guy whose terminology was extremely inexpensive. It consisted of him pulling a well-worn travel dictionary out of his jacket pocket, looking up words in it, and combining them into what he thought was the correct term. (No joke.)

I knew another guy whose term work required a high four-figure sum for each term. Lawyers and bureaucrats reviewed every single term and definition because his company made parts for nuclear weapons. (Also no joke.)

I'm glad the first guy did not work in the second guy's company.

Most term costs will fall in-between these two extremes. But it pays to spend some time thinking about how much a single term costs because then you can argue with numbers. It's easier to show how much the investment in terminology management saves the company in the end.

  • Sit down with the colleagues doing term work. Don't guess; ask them how long they take to research terms, what resources they use, and how long discussions and decisions take. Watch them create terms in the database and time them as they work - discretely, at least, or surreptitiously if you must, but official time/motion studies are also an option if people are cooperative. (This is, of course, a good way to uncover best practices and spread them about, but that's a whole different topic.)

  • Once you've figured out how long it takes on average to create a term, ask management or the personnel department how much a full-time worker costs the company per hour. They've already made the calculations so you don't have to, based on salaries, taxation, government benefits, equipment and physical plant, depreciation of same, and other overhead costs of employment. Multiply the hourly cost by the time to create one term, and there's your base rate.

  • Then factor in the hourly cost of terminology management: Personnel, providing and administering the term database, training colleagues, and all the other tasks revolving around supporting terminology work in the company. (What, you haven't done this already? Get to it ...)

  • Finally, look at what your company does and decide whether other factors need to be taken into consideration, such as risk management and legal issues. Are products and services "mostly harmless" if a term is misunderstood? Or would customers suffer danger to life and limb, and term work must invest far more into research and discussions in order to ensure safety? Do laws require specific terms and wordings? Do specific external experts need to be consulted - for example, from an international standards group, or a national language board? All of these things add to the discussion time and investment in a term.

In the end a rule-of-thumb cost estimate for a single term is a powerful weapon in your arsenal of arguments for terminology management. Get one if you don't already have one!