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In linguistics, a homonym is one of a group of words that share the same pronunciation but have different meanings, and are usually spelled the same.

Some sources only require that homonyms share the same spelling or pronunciation (in addition to having different meanings), but these are the definitions most other sources give for homographs and homophones respectively.

The state of being a homonym is called homonymy. Examples of homonyms are stalk (which can mean either part of a plant or to follow someone around), bear (animal) and bear (carry), left (opposite of right) and left (past tense of leave). Some sources also consider the following trio of words to be homonyms, but others designate them as "only" homophones: to, too and two (actually, to, to, too, too and two, being "for the purpose of" as in "to make it easier", the opposite of "from", also, excessively, and "2", respectively). Some sources state that homonym meanings must be unrelated in origin (rather than just different). Thus right (correct) and right (opposed to left) would be polysemous (see below) and not be homonyms.

There is similar confusion about the definition of some of the related terms described below. This article explains what appear to be the "standard" meanings, and variant definitions are then summarised under "Terminological confusion".

The word "homonym" comes from the conjunction of the Greek prefix ὁμο-, homo-, "same" and suffix -ώνυμος, -ōnymos, "name". Thus, it refers to two or more distinct words sharing the "same name".

Related terms[]


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Several similar linguistic concepts are related to homonymy. The term 'homonym' is ambiguous because there are a number of ways that two meanings can share the 'same name' and because the term is used in different ways by educated speakers, and these variant meanings are recorded by dictionaries. The terms homograph and homophone are however usually defined the same way as meaning "same spelling" and "same sound" respectively, and heteronym and homonym can be seen as respective subclasses of these.

  • Homographs are words that share the same spelling regardless of how they are pronounced. Homographs may be pronounced the same, in which case they are also homophones – for example, bark (the sound of a dog) and bark (the skin of a tree). Alternatively they may be pronounced differently, in which case they are also heteronyms – for example, row (argument) and row (propel with oars). ("Homograph" also has a specialised meaning in typography, where it may be used as a synonym for homoglyph.)
  • Homophones are words that share the same pronunciation regardless of how they are spelled. Homophones may be spelled the same (in which case they are also homographs) or spelled differently (in which case they are heterographs). Homographic examples include tire (to become weary) and tire (on the wheel of a car). Heterographic examples include to, too, two, and there, their, they’re.
  • Heteronyms can be seen as the subclass of homographs (words that share the same spelling) that have different pronunciations. That is, they are homographs which are not homophones. This means words that are spelled the same but with different pronunciations (and meanings). Such words include desert (to abandon) and desert (arid region); row (to argue or an argument) and row (as in to row a boat or a row of seats). Note that the latter meaning also constitutes a homophone. Heteronyms are also sometimes called heterophones. ("Heteronym" also has a specialized meaning in poetry; see Heteronym (literature).)
  • Homonyms can be seen as the subclass of homophones that are spelled the same, which is logically the same as the subclass of homographs that are pronounced the same. This means words that are spelled and pronounced the same (but have different meanings).
  • Polysemes are words with the same spelling and distinct but related meanings. The distinction between polysemy and homonymy is often subtle and subjective, and not all sources consider polysemous words to be homonyms. Words such as "mouth", meaning either the orifice on one's face, or the opening of a cave or river, are polysemous and may or may not be considered homonyms.
  • Capitonyms are words that share the same spelling but have different meanings when capitalized (and may or may not have different pronunciations). Such words include polish (to make shiny) and Polish (from Poland).

In derivation, homograph means "same writing", homophone means "same sound", heteronym means "different name", and heterophone means "different sound".

Terminological confusion[]

There is considerable confusion and contradiction in published sources about the distinction between homonyms, homographs, homophones and heteronyms. Significant variant interpretations include:

  • Chambers 21st Century Dictionary [1] defines a homonym as "a word with the same sound and spelling as another, but with a different meaning" (italics added). Longman Dictionary of Contemporary English[2] also defines a homonym as "a word that is spelt the same and sounds the same as another, but is different in meaning or origin." Random House Unabridged Dictionary[3] explains in greatest detail that homonym is the technically correct term for words that are simultaneously homographs and homophones but that it is used in the sense of only homograph or only homophone in nontechnical contexts. Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary [4] also says that a homonym is "one of two or more words spelt and pronounced alike but different in meaning" (italics added), but appears to also give homonym as a synonym for either homophone or homograph. Cambridge Dictionary of American English [5] defines homonym as "a word that is spelt the same as another word but that does not have the same meaning" and adds "A homonym is also a homophone".
  • The entry for homograph in The Encyclopaedia Britannica (14th Edition) states that homographs are "words spelt but not sounded alike", and homophones are "words alike only in sound (i.e. not alike in spelling)" (italics and comment added).
  • Homographs are defined in the Oxford English Dictionary as words that are spelt and pronounced the same as another but with a different meaning (which is the definition of a homonym in most other sources), thus excluding pairs such as desert (abandon) and desert (arid region), which are considered homographs by most other sources.
  • The Encarta dictionary [6] defines heteronym as "each of two or more words that are spelt the same, but differ in meaning and often in pronunciation" (italics added). The "Fun with Words" website [7] similarly says that a heteronym is "One of two (or more) words that have the same spelling, but different meaning, and sometimes different pronunciation too".

Further examples[]

A further example of a homonym which is both a homophone and a homograph is fluke. Fluke can mean:

All four are separate lexemes with separate etymologies, but share the one form, fluke.*[8]

Similarly, a river bank, a savings bank, a bank of switches, and a bank shot in pool share only a common spelling and pronunciation, but not meaning.

The words bow and bough are interesting because there are two meanings associated with a single pronunciation and spelling (the weapon and the knot); there are two meanings with two different pronunciations (the knot and the act of bending at the waist), and there are two distinct meanings sharing the same sound but different spellings: (bow, the act of bending at the waist, and bough, the branch of a tree). In addition, it has several related but distinct meanings - a bent line is sometimes called a 'bowed' line, reflecting its similarity to the weapon. Thus, even according to the most restrictive definitions, various pairs of sounds and meanings of bow and bough are homonyms, homographs, homophones, heterophones, heterographs, and are polysemous.

  • bow - To bend forward at the waist in respect (e.g. "bow down")
  • bow - the front of the ship (e.g. "bow and stern")
  • bow - the weapon which shoots arrows (e.g. "bow and arrow")
  • bow - a kind of tied ribbon (e.g. bow on a present, a bowtie)
  • bow - to bend outward at the sides (e.g. a "bow-legged" cowboy)
  • bough - a branch on a tree. (e.g. "when the bough breaks...")
  • bō - a long staff, usually made of tapered hard wood or bamboo
  • beau--a male paramour

Homonymy in historical linguistics[]

Homonymy can lead to communicative conflicts and thus trigger lexical (onomasiological) change[9]. This is known as homonymic conflict.

See also[]

External links[]


  1. Chambers Reference Online - Homonym. URL accessed on 2008-01-14.
  2. Longman dictionary of contemporary English. URL accessed on 2008-01-14.
  3. - Homonym. URL accessed on 2008-01-14.
  4. Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary. URL accessed on 2008-01-14.
  5. Cambridge Dictionary of American English. URL accessed on 2008-01-14.
  6. Encarta. URL accessed on 2008-01-14.
  7. Fun with Words. URL accessed on 2008-01-14.
  8. The Online Etymological Dictionary. URL accessed on 2008-01-14.
  9. On this phenomenon see Williams, Edna R. (1944), The Conflict of Homonyms in English, [Yale Studies in English 100], New Haven: Yale University Press, Grzega, Joachim (2004), Bezeichnungswandel: Wie, Warum, Wozu? Ein Beitrag zur englischen und allgemeinen Onomasiologie, Heidelberg: Winter, p. 216ff., and Grzega, Joachim (2001d), “Über Homonymenkonflikt als Auslöser von Wortuntergang”, in: Grzega, Joachim (2001c), Sprachwissenschaft ohne Fachchinesisch: 7 aktuelle Studien für alle Sprachinteressierten, Aachen: Shaker, p. 81-98.

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