A Frayed Knot of Words

The difference between "homonym" and "homophone"

Last week’s posting discussed sound-alike words that are often mistaken for one another, despite their different meanings.

That brought a comment from heisenberg76:

It is ironic that the author of this ‘Language Corner’ column does not know the correct use of the technical term at the center of this article—it should be ‘homophone’, not ‘homonym’.

First, please congratulate Mr. or Ms. Heisenberg76 (can we just call you 76?) on the proper use of “ironic,” though let’s save that discussion for another day.

Second, our friend 76 is both right and wrong.

Generations of schoolchildren learned that a “homonym” was a word sounding the same as but spelled differently from another with a different meaning (pedal and peddle, for example, or to, too, and two). Others learned that words that sounded alike but were spelled differently were “homophones,”, and words that were spelled the same but had different meanings were “homonyms” (bear the mammal and bear the verb, for example).

And if you haven’t learned by now that dictionaries shouldn’t be used to settle these kinds of arguments, here’s more evidence, this time using the definition of “homonym.”

The New Oxford American Dictionary’s first definition is “each of two words having the same pronunciation but different meanings, origins, or spelling (e.g., to, too, and two); a homophone,” and then “each of two or more words having the same spelling but different meanings and origins (e.g., pole and pole); a homograph.”

That dictionary’s big daddy, the Oxford English Dictionary, favors 76’s camp: a “homonym” is “the same name or word used to denote different things” and “homophone” is “applied to words having the same sound, but differing in meaning or derivation.”

American Heritage takes LC’s side—a homonym is “one of two or more words that have the same sound and often the same spelling but differ in meaning, such as bank (embankment) and bank (place where money is kept)”—as does Webster’s New World, kind of: “a word with the same pronunciation as another but with a different meaning, origin, and, usually, spelling (Ex.: bore and boar); homophone.”

Finally, there’s Merriam-Webster’s Unabridged Dictionary: “1a: homophone; b: homograph; c: one of two or more words spelled and pronounced alike but different in meaning (as pool of water and pool the game).” Its definition of “homophone” is enough to twist yourself into knots: “one of two or more words pronounced alike but different in meaning or derivation or spelling (as all and awl; to, too, and two; rite, write, right, and wright) — called also homonym.” And “homograph”? “One of two or more words spelled alike but differing in derivation or meaning or pronunciation (as fair, market and fair, beautiful; lead, to conduct and lead, metal) — called also homonym.”

Backword reals the mined.

Sew watt halve wee learned?

When a dictionary uses one word to define another, they’re acceptable as synonyms. “Homophone” can, indeed, be used for words pronounced alike but spelled differently, as 76 prefers, especially when precision is required. And if you want to further split that hair, the less-familiar “homograph” could differentiate the “homophones” that are spelled the same but have different meanings. But they’re all part of the “homonym” family, and there’s nothing wrong with calling them that.

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Merrill Perlman managed copy desks across the newsroom at The New York Times, where she worked for 25 years. Follow her on Twitter at @meperl.