What is a good synonym for "sememe" that sounds less like academia jargon?

We're using this term to mean, a "unit of meaning" that a UI element of an iOS app should try to communicate.

For example, when the border of a text field is red, and when there is a red (!) symbol next to it, then the color and icon are trying to communicate that there is an error associated with that text field. Thus "error" is a sememe that the UI is trying to communicate.

This doesn't mean "error" is the only sememe being communicated however. In addition, the lack of a blinking insertion point inside the field communicates the field is inactive. Hence, "inactive" is another sememe being communicated by some aspect of the visual appearance of the UI.

We call the cumulative set of all sememes being communicated by some component made up of UI subcomponents (like border, icon, text field, etc.), the "semantic context" of that component. I.e., a set of "sememes" define the "semantic context".

However some of our developers have argued we should not use the term, "sememe", because they say it's an unfamiliar term. Admittedly, unless you have a background in linguistics or semiotics, you're very unlikely to know this word.

So we've begun a bit of a quest to find a synonym of "sememe" that also means "unit of meaning." Please help, thanks.

Suggestions that have already been ruled out:

- "token"

So far the only suggestion that's been made has been "token", however I don't feel "token" is really a synonym of "sememe."

"Token" typically refers to the actual thing that a sememe is associated with. For example the icon (!), is a token, but tokens don't inherently have any meaning, as meaning tends to be imbued to a token differently depending on the culture.

We track meaning separately from tokens in case we need to use a different token depending on the language and region of the user. The process of "localization" in iOS software means, translating tokens in such a way that they can accurately communicate your intended message for the user based on their locale preferences.

In linguistics terms, "token" is a synonym of "morpheme," not of "sememe." Right?

- "definition"

Someone might say, "definition," however, I would typically say that a "sememe" has a definition, not that it is a definition. All of the current sememes in our codebase are represented as single words, for which we provide strict definitions in documentation comments.

  • Though this is a question about a word in English, it is a technical term that might best be answered in the technical area, namely Linguistics
    – Mitch
    Commented Nov 12, 2020 at 20:11
  • Stripped of jargon, "a unit of meaning" is "a meaning". So, depending on context, any synonym of "a meaning" (e.g., "a sense") will do to replace "sememe".
    – JEL
    Commented Nov 12, 2020 at 21:38
  • Maybe it’s a ^**tidbit***!?
    – Jim
    Commented Nov 12, 2020 at 21:54
  • 1
    I’m voting to close this question because it's asking the impossible. A non-technical synonym for a term having and intended to have only a precising definition. Bound to lead nowhere or worse to confusion. Commented Nov 13, 2020 at 12:43
  • @JEL "meaning" could work but feels imprecise to me. If "meaning" was sufficient then why does "unit of meaning" mean something different than "meaning"? Or does it?
    – scaly
    Commented Nov 13, 2020 at 17:40

3 Answers 3


Here are a few ideas:

  • semantic feature
  • the smallest unit of meaning
  • basic / primitive / fundamental / foundational unit of meaning
  • semantic prime / primitive
  • simple / basic / universal human concept

The way you describe it the sum of the information conveyed by all the sememes of a UI element could be described as the message of that UI item. Each sememe making up the message could, therefore, be referred to as a 'message item' or even 'message element' (although referring to a 'message element' of a 'UI element message' could be horribly confusing).

In your example the message conveyed by the combination of a red border and a red shreik character would be 'error, inactive" and 'error' and 'inactive' would be the items in that message. In the case of a UI element with a simple message that message would be a single item message.


In searching for a single word that has connotations of very small meaning (and therefore may be indivisible and unitary), my only suggestion is inkling. The dictionary definitions are perhaps too restrictive for you, so there may be a case for the specialist extension of meaning were you to use it.

Inkling = a slight knowledge or vague notion

Merriam webster

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