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Defining 'homonym' and 'homophone'
may be as difficult as finding a Yeti!


"So... what is a homonym anyway?"

Have you ever noticed that it's sometimes really difficult to pin down the definition of a word?

That's pretty common when you look at different dictionaries.

I was surprised, however, to find that the term 'homonym' also has different definitions, depending upon which dictionary you consult.

For example, when I look up 'homonym' in my Oxford, I find the following definition:

  • Homonym: "Word of same form as another but different sense (e.g. POLE(1), POLE(2))".

Although that says nothing about words that sound the same, well, that seemed OK, I thought. But, what does Webster say? Well... when I looked, I found something different again:

  • Homonym: "a word having the same sound, or the same spelling and sound, as another which has a different meaning, e.g. 'bare' and 'bear'".

Well, now... that's not quite the same as Oxford, is it? The Americans seem to stress the sound of the word, whereas the English emphasize the spelling.

This was becoming more puzzling the further I got into it!

Hence, when I consulted my trusty Chambers (a good friend of 40 years or more), I wasn't at all surprised (by now) to find something different again:

  • Homonym: "a word having the same sound as another but a different meaning and origin."

So, in this case, Chambers appears to ignore spelling altogether and concentrate upon sound only. But perhaps, by inference, Chambers doesn't care whether the words are spelt the same or differently?

So, finally... when I looked up the MacQuarie Dictionary, I was prepared for the worst - and I got it!:

  • Homonym: "a word like another in sound and sometimes in spelling, but different in meaning, as meat and meet.

Looks like the Australians are also trying to have it both ways, but they're not quite sure, are they? Is Oxford therefore all wrong? Is Webster sitting on the fence, trying to have it both ways also?

Who is right? Or, are they all wrong?

As somebody once said, "Is a puzzlement!"

In summary, here is what the four are saying:

  • Oxford: Homonyms are words spelt the same way, but different meaning;

  • Webster: Homonyms are words which sound the same and/or spelt the same, but different meaning;

  • Chambers: Homonyms are words that sound the same, but different meaning; and

  • MacQuarie: Homonyms are words that sound the same and are - maybe - spelt the same, but with different meaning!

The only point of absolute agreement concerns "different meanings". To make matters worse, there is the question of homophones.

Once again, there are some differences:

  • Oxford: Homophone - "a word having the same sound as another, but of different meaning or origin."

  • Websters: Homophone - "a homonym, a letter having the same sound as another."

  • Chambers: Homophone - "a word pronounced alike with another but different in meaning."

  • MacQuarie: Homophone - "a word pronounced the same as another, regardless of spelling as heir and air ."

Is there any point of absolute agreement with those four definitions? It seems to me that the deeper I go, the worse it gets!

"Yeah, so... what are you driving at, eh?"

Well... wouldn't it be useful if there was some attempt at consistent classification across dictionaries? I know it's not high on the agenda in most people's lives, but I'd like to throw some ideas into the ring, so to speak.

Surely it would be much simpler to just define homonyms as words that are spelt the same and which sound the same, but have different meanings (following Oxford), while words that are spelt differently and sound the same, and have different meanings, are homophones (following MacQuarie). And, leave it at that!

So, words that sound different, but which are spelt the same, are homographs . Hence, as my final take on the issue, homonyms are words spelt the same and sound the same; homophones are spelt differently but sound the same! What could be easier? If you have any suggestions or comments, I'd be delighted to hear from you.

"Well, what good will all of that do, anyway?"

Hmmm... it would settle any confusion that poor blokes like me encounter when I get different answers, for the same question, from different dictionaries, for starters! It'd also clear up the confusion that surrounds the definitions of 'homonym' and 'homophone' (every person whom I've asked could not define 'homonym', and I've asked a lot; hey, if all the dictionaries can't agree, it's not all that surprising).

It would also be very helpful to students all over, if we could all rest assured that we were all talking about the same thing!

And, finally, I could move on to more mundane, but more important topics, like paying the internet and phone bill or trying to win the lottery! Or both!

Well, there you have it - my two-cents(sense?) worth to bring some sense to a major difference (apparently) in defining two word classifications. Now... where was I... ?

Roger signing off.

P.S. If you want to get stuck into Roger’s Reference immediately, just click here to order via PayPal!

On the other hand, click here to purchase using your own crypto-currency, which is easier and faster!

P.P.S. If you're not sure what a Yeti is, my Websters says it's the "abominable snowman" from Tibet. If you want to find out more here's a link that will tell you! It'll take you to Encyclopaedia Britannica where you can do a search on "Yeti". Or, try this Wiki link.

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