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The use and meaning of nano in American English: Towards a systematic description

Journal article
Authors Max Boholm
Published in Ampersand: An International Journal of General and Applied Linguistics
Volume 3
Pages 163–173
ISSN 2215-0390
Publication year 2016
Published at Gothenburg Research Institute (GRI)
Pages 163–173
Language en
Keywords Nanotechnology; Semantics; Corpus linguistics; Word-formation
Subject categories Linguistics, General Language Studies and Linguistics, Nano Technology


The morpheme nano is today used in various words, such as nanometer, nanoscale, nanotechnology, nanomaterial, nanorobot, iPod nano, and nanotyrannus. This range of uses is partly explained by an interest in nanotechnology manifest in many spheres of society, including science, politics, and popular culture. These varied uses of nano challenge semantic description, as the meaning of nano in use greatly exceeds its precise meaning of “billionth part”, for example, in the modified SI unit nanometer. The aim is to analyze the use and meaning of the morpheme nano based on attested uses from the Corpus of Contemporary American English (COCA). The following six research questions are addressed: In what genres of COCA does nano occur? To what extent is nano a constituent of complex words? What are the most common positions of nano in complex words? In what types of words does nano occur? What do these words mean? How are they related? Contrary to the view that the morpheme nano is being misused (sometimes expressed in the literature), I argue that, while the use of nano is indeed varied, it can be systematically described.

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