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The many faces of nano in newspaper reporting

News: Jan 31, 2012

The morpheme nano in languages such as Swedish and English is a constituent of many words. Max Boholm and Åsa Boholm have linguistically analysed the meaning potential of nano by focusing on word use in a Swedish newspaper.

Boholm and Boholm have analysed 2,564 articles (1.6 million words) covering a 22-year period (1988–2010). Close to 400 word forms having nano as a constituent have been identified and analyzed. The results suggest that nano covers a broad and heterogeneous conceptual field: (i) as a prefix of the SI system; (ii) in relation to the scientific activities of nanoscience and nanotechnology, including their sub-processes and actors; and (iii) in relation to objects. The identified meanings of nano, besides the standard definition (i.e. ‘billionth part’ in relation to SI units), are ‘operating at the nanometre level’ in relation to activities and their actors and ‘nanometre sized’ and ‘nanotechnological’ in relation to objects; in addition, the less precise and non-technical meaning ‘very small’ is identified.

The authors discuss the implications of the findings for a hypothesis about media influence on public understanding of technology, suggesting that repeated findings in Europe and the USA of little self-reported understanding and knowledge of nanotechnology or nanoscience among the public make sense in light of the polysemy of nano reflected in its broad variety of verbal forms and usages.

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