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The aspect of language in which, through historical accident, two or more words may sound and look-alike is homonymy (as in a farmer’s bull and a papal bull). Other types of homonymy are homophony (as in air and heir; gilt and guilt), which may sound the same but look different, and homography (as in the wind in the trees and roads that wind) may look the same but sound different.

Homonyms, homophones, and homographs seldom pose problems of comprehension, because they usually belong in different contexts. Even when brought into the same context for effect (‘The heir to the throne had an air of self-satisfaction’), they are entirely clear. They may, however, be used to make puns (for example, ‘a papal bull in a china shop’).

In linguistics, a homonym is one of a group of words that share the same pronunciation but have different meanings, and are usually spelt differently. 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, 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 and not be homonyms.

The word homonym comes from the conjunction of the Greek prefix homo- (meaning same) and the suffix -onym (meaning name). Thus, it refers to two or more distinct words sharing the same name.

Related Terms

Several similar linguistic concepts are related to homonymy. The term homonym is ambiguous because there are several 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 usually defined in 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 spelt. Homophones may be spelt the same (in which case they are also homographs) or spelt 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 that are not homophones. This means words that are spelt 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 into 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 spelt the same, which is logically the same as the subclass of homographs that are pronounced the same. This means words that are spelt 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.

    • Chambers 21st Century Dictionary defines a homonym as “a word with the same sound and spelling as another, but with a different meaning”.
    • Longman Dictionary of Contemporary English 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 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 also says that a homonym is “one of two or more words spelt and pronounced alike but different in meaning”, but appears to also give homonym as a synonym for either homophone or homograph.
    • Cambridge Dictionary of American English 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)”.
    • 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 defines heteronym as “each of two or more words that are spelt the same, but differ in meaning and often in pronunciation”.
    • The “Fun with Words” website 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”.

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

A fish, and a flatworm
The end parts of an anchor
The fins on a whale’s tail
A stroke of luck

All four are separate lexemes with separate etymologies, but share the one form, fluke. Similarly, a riverbank, 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 two distinct meanings are sharing the same sound but different spellings: (bow, the act of bending at the waist, and bough, the branch of a tree). Also, 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 hardwood or bamboo
beau – a male paramour

Homonymic Conflict

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

Here are some common homonym examples:

    • Atmosphere -the gases surrounding the earth / the mood of a situation
    • Bail -to clear out water / to release a prisoner
    • Band -a ring, sometimes symbolizing eternity / a musical group
    • Beat -to overcome something / to feel exhausted
    • Capital -the chief city of a state / a crime punishable by death
    • Cleave -to split or sever / to adhere to
    • Dive -to go down quickly / an unpleasant place
    • Employ -to put into use / to hire someone for a job
    • File -to store computer data / to make a formal request
    • Fine -being of high quality / sum of money used as a penalty
    • Grave -something very serious / a place to bury the dead
    • Hide -to keep something secret / the skin of an animal
    • Iron -to press or smooth / silvery-grey metal
    • Jade -a hard, greenstone / a hardened or bad-tempered woman
    • Lark -a small bird / something done for fun
    • Objective -not being influenced by prejudice / the lens of a microscope or camera
    • Plaque -an ornamental plate or slab that commemorates a person or event / a deposit on teeth prone to bacteria
    • Refrain -to stop oneself from doing something / a repeated line in music or poetry
    • Reticule -at a distance or disconnected / an unlikely possibility
    • Tender -sensitive or painful to the touch / soft food i.e. a chicken tender

Homonyms -words that have the same spelling and pronunciation but different meanings.

Homographs -words that are spelt the same but have different pronunciation and meanings.

Homophones -words that are pronounced the same but have different spellings and meanings.

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δάσκαλος (dáskalos) means the teacher in Greek. Devika Panikar has been teaching English Language and Literature since 2006. She is an Assistant Professor with the Directorate of Collegiate Education under the Government of Kerala. She teaches at the Government Colleges coming under this directorate and is now posted at the Department of English, Government College for Women, Thiruvananthapuram. This website is a collection of the lecture notes that she prepared by referring to various sources, for her students’ perusal. It has been compiled here for the sake of future generations.