Definition of Homonyms

A homonym means a word having the same sounds but different meanings. A homonym is of Grecian origin. It is made up 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. Etymologically, however, it is a Greek word.

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 having 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

Whereas homophones seem the same, though, they are different from each other, homographs are different but their spellings are the same. 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 homonym and others homographs but this suggestion has no wider acceptance.

Examples in Literature

Example #1

From 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.

(Lewis Carroll, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland)

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 own 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

From “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.

These four stanzas occur in the poem “A Homonym Poem” by Shankaran Kutty. She has played with row, saw, rock as well as sink in the first two stanzas, using both versions of the homonyms that the readers perfectly understand what Kutty means. Similarly, she continues with it in the next two stanzas with different uses of lead, fall, tear, and foot which have the same spellings and same sounds.

Example #3

From “Fatihless 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 “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 different spellings.

Example #4

A Tale of Tails by Elizabeth H. MacPherson

This beautiful book by Elizabeth MacPherson presents a quizzical 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. The reason for this subtlety is that sometimes words have a slight difference or even no difference in sounds but they have different connotations. Sometimes, they are different in denotations. Therefore, 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 and connotations. They help writers make a difference in meanings and help their audiences grasp their messages.