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In linguistics, a homonym is, in the strict sense, one of a group of words that share the same spelling and the same pronunciation but have different meanings (in other words, are both homographs and homophones),[1] usually as a result of the words having different origins. The state of being a homonym is called homonymy. Examples of homonyms are the pair stalk (part of a plant) and stalk (follow/harass a person) and the pair left (opposite of right) and left (past tense of leave).

In a looser, non-technical sense, the term "homonym" can be used to refer to two different kinds of words: a) words that share the same spelling (irrespective of their pronunciation) and b) words that share the same pronunciation (irrespective of their spelling). This means that "homonym" can be used to mean a homograph or a homophone.[1] In this looser sense, the words row (propel with oars) and row (argument) are also homonyms as are the words read (peruse) and reed (waterside plant).

A distinction may be 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).[2][3]



The word "homonym" comes from the Greek "ὁμώνυμος" (homonumos), meaning "having the same name",[4] which is the conjunction of "ὁμός" (homos), meaning "one and the same"[5] and "ὄνομα" (onoma) meaning "name"[6]. 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.

Related terms

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 type of knot).

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