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One of a group of words that share the same spelling and the same pronunciation but have different meanings
In linguistics, homonyms, broadly defined, are words which are homographs (words that share the same spelling, regardless of pronunciation) or homophones (words that share the same pronunciation, regardless of spelling), or both. For example, according to this definition, the words row (propel with oars), row (argument) and row (a linear arrangement) are homonyms, as are the words see (vision) and sea (body of water).
A more restrictive or technical definition sees homonyms as words that are simultaneously homographs and homophones - that is to say they have identical spelling and pronunciation, whilst maintaining different meanings. Examples are the pair stalk (part of a plant) and stalk (follow/harass a person) and the pair left (past tense of leave) and left (opposite of right).
A distinction is sometimes made between true homonyms, which are unrelated in origin, such as skate (glide on ice) and skate (the fish), and polysemous homonyms, or polysemes, which have a shared origin, such as mouth (of a river) and mouth (of an animal).
The relationship between a set of homonyms is called homonymy, and the associated adjective is homonymous or homonymic.
The adjective "homonymous" can additionally be used wherever two items share the same name, independent of how closely they are or are not related in terms of their meaning or etymology. For example, the name ?kami is homonymous with the Japanese term for "wolf" (?kami).
The word homonym comes from the Greek (homonymos), meaning "having the same name", which is the conjunction of ? (homos), "common, same,
similar " and (onoma) meaning "name". Thus, it refers to two or more distinct concepts sharing the "same name" or signifier. Note: for the h sound, see rough breathing and smooth breathing.
Euler diagram showing the relationships between homonyms (between blue and green) and related linguistic concepts.
Several similar linguistic concepts are related to homonymy. These include:
Homographs (literally "same writing") are usually defined as words that share the same spelling, regardless of how they are pronounced.[note 1] If they are pronounced the same then they are also homophones (and homonyms) – for example, bark (the sound of a dog) and bark (the skin of a tree). If they are pronounced differently then they are also heteronyms – for example, bow (the front of a ship) and bow (a ranged weapon).
Homophones (literally "same sound") are usually defined as words that share the same pronunciation, regardless of how they are spelled.[note 2] If they are spelled the same then they are also homographs (and homonyms); if they are spelled differently then they are also heterographs (literally "different writing"). Homographic examples include rose (flower) and rose (past tense of rise). Heterographic examples include to, too, two, and there, their, they're. Due to their similar yet non-identical pronunciation in American English, ladder and latter do not qualify as homophones, but rather synophones.
Heteronyms (literally "different name") are the subset of homographs (words that share the same spelling) that have different pronunciations (and meanings).[note 3] Such words include desert (to abandon) and desert (arid region); tear (to rip) and tear (a drop of moisture formed in one eye); row (to argue or an argument) and row (as in to row a boat or a row of seats - a pair of homophones). Heteronyms are also sometimes called heterophones (literally "different sound").
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 (make shiny) and Polish (from Poland); march (walk in step) and March (the third month of the Year) and the pair: reading (using a book) and Reading (towns in, among other places, England).
The word with the greatest number of definitions in the English language is: Set
below are some examples:
set something up
set something down
a film set
a badgers set
the Egyptian storm god Set
set a table
set a watch
set a record
wait for a jelly to set
set a broken bone
a set of figurines
set in ones ways
a set of integers
A further example of a homonym, which is both a homophone and a homograph, is fluke. Fluke can mean:
These meanings represent at least three etymologically separate lexemes, but share the one form, fluke.* Note that fluke is also a capitonym, in that Fluke Corporation (commonly referred to as simply "Fluke") is a manufacturer of industrial testing equipment.
Similarly, a river bank, a savings bank, a bank of switches, and a bank shot in the game of pool share a common spelling and pronunciation, but differ in meaning.
The words bow and bough are examples where there are two meanings associated with a single pronunciation and spelling (the weapon and the knot); two meanings with two different pronunciations (the knot and the act of bending at the waist), and 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. Even according to the most restrictive definitions, various pairs of sounds and meanings of bow, Bow and bough are homonyms, homographs, homophones, heteronyms, heterographs, capitonyms and are polysemous.
The words there, their, and they're are examples of three words that are of a singular pronunciation, have different spellings and vastly different meanings. These three words are commonly misused (or misspelled if you want to look at it that way).
there - "The bow shot the arrow there," he said as he pointed.
their - "It was their bow and arrow." the Mother said.
they're - They're not going to get to shoot the bow again after puncturing the tire(tyre) on Daddy's car. (Contraction of They and Are.)
Homonyms in historical linguistics
Homonymy can lead to communicative conflicts and thus trigger lexical (onomasiological) change. This is known as homonymic conflict.
^Some sources restrict the term "homograph" to words that have the same spelling but different pronunciations. See, for example, The Blackwell Encyclopedia of Writing Systems, p. 215 (Wiley-Blackwell, 1999) and The Encyclopædia Britannica (14th Edition) (entry for "homograph").
^Some sources restrict the term "homophone" to words that have the same pronunciation but different spellings. See, for example, The Blackwell Encyclopedia of Writing Systems, p. 202 (Wiley-Blackwell, 1999) and The Encyclopædia Britannica (14th Edition) (entry for "homograph").
^Some sources do not require that heteronyms have different pronunciations. See, for example, the archived Encarta dictionary entry (which states that heteronyms "often" differ in pronunciation) and the "Fun with Words" website (which states that heteronyms "sometimes" have different pronunciations).
^ abhomonym, Random House Unabridged Dictionary at dictionary.com
^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.