Definition of Homonyms

A homonym means a word having the same sounds but different meanings. The word ‘homonym’ is of Grecian origin, made of two words, “homos” which means the same, and “onoma” which means the name. It is also stated that it has a Latin origin that goes back to the 17th century. However, etymologically is Greek.

Semantically, such words have a huge difference in terms of signifying different things. They sound almost the same such as cite means to refer to something, while site (with s) means a place, yet there is a little difference in spelling that is of “c” and “s” and the sound, too, is the same. Some other such words, for example, write and right, have prominent differences in spelling, yet they have the same sounds. They are also called heterographs. Sometimes a homophone could have the same sound and spelling, such as “set” but have several meanings, as Webster’s Third International Dictionary shows the largest number of entries of this word having different meanings.

Difference of Homophones, Homonyms, and Homographs

Homonyms spell or pronounce the same, whereas homophones have the same spellings but different meanings and may also pronounce differently Homographs are different, and their spellings are the same but have different meanings and pronunciations. In this situation, homonyms could be both. Therefore, homonyms could refer to any one of them. Although Merriam-Webster states that some linguists suggest separating them, suggesting having alike spellings but different pronunciations should be homonyms and others homographs, but this suggestion has no wider acceptance.

Examples of Homonyms in Literature

Example #1

Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll

‘You promised to tell me your history, you know,’ said Alice, ‘and why it is you hate—C and D,’ she added in a whisper, half afraid that it would be offended again.‘Mine is a long and a sad tale!’ said the Mouse, turning to Alice, and sighing.‘It IS a long tail, certainly,’ said Alice, looking down with wonder at the Mouse’s tail; ‘but why do you call it sad?’ And she kept on puzzling about it while the Mouse was speaking, so that her idea of the tale was something like this.

This passage occurs in the popular story of Lewis Carroll about Alice. In this paragraph, Alice is engaged in conversation with the Mouse, who is telling her his tale. He has mixed up tale and tail in such a way that it seems Alice is interested, and yet she pleasantly mocks at his use of the tale that is true in both ways that his tale is sad as well as long. She means a tale as well as a tail in the same sense that creates a sense of amusement in the readers when they read it. Yet, it cannot be rendered into the speech pattern, for both have the same sound.

Example #2

A Homonym Poem by Shankaran Kutty

On a stream outside I found few people row
A small country boat, sitting in a row
Across the stream a woodcutter I saw
Cutting his wood with an electric saw

And then I heard the building walls rock
And stood before me, a giant like a rock
With fear I felt my heart then sink
He picked me up and threw into the kitchen sink

And then to escape, I picked up a lead
From the sink I found a giant tube that did lead
To escape, I thought and slid through to fall
On the ground below, like leaves in fall

My mission failed, I couldn’t stop a tear
The journey through the tube, my shirt did tear
And like a little pumpkin had swollen my foot
Without pain, I could not move a foot.

The poet has played with the following words: row, saw, and rock, as well as sink in the first two stanzas, using both versions of the homonyms so that the readers perfectly understand what the poet means. Similarly, the next two stanzas with different uses of lead, fall, tear, and foot have the same spellings and same sounds.

Example #3

Faithless Sally Brown by Thomas Hood

His death, which happened in his berth,
At forty-odd befell;
They went and told the sexton, and
The sexton tolled the bell.

This is the last stanza of the poem Faithless Sally Brown by Thomas Hood. Interest, the spellings of tolled and told are not the same though they have the same sound and different meanings. This is a very good use of a homonym that has the same pronunciation but different meanings and spellings.

Example #4

A Tale of Tails by Elizabeth H. MacPherson

This beautiful book by Elizabeth MacPherson presents a curious boy who comes to know that all animals have tails. Strangely, he thinks that he does not have a tail, and so do the other human beings. However, with the passage of time, he learns that a tail is very useful for the animals and can help them in various ways. Although some of the questions and his answers seem quite hilarious, the illustration of the same makes the book interesting for the children. Overall, it has successfully explained the difference between a tail and a tale, the two most popular homonyms.

Function of Homonyms

The functions of homonyms in literature and writing are very subtle. Subtleness is necessary because sometimes words have a slight difference or even no difference in sounds, but they have different connotations. Sometimes, they are different in denotations as well. So, it is necessary that a writer should understand even the slightest differences in meanings if the sounds and spellings are similar. Here the understanding of homonyms helps that they function as distinctive entities to make readers understand the fine differences in meanings. They also make dialogues, especially poems, rich and melodic.