English Lesson: What are Homonyms?

A homonym is a word that sounds exactly like another word and shares the same spelling — but they have different meanings.

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  • Melissa’s dog gave a bark when the squirrel scurried up the bark of the nearby tree.
  • When the stranger rose up from the park bench, he handed Melissa a red rose.
  • Just before he left, she stood up and kissed the man lightly on his left cheek in thanks.

There are several linguistic concepts closely related to homonyms. Homonyms are both homographs (words that are spelled the same) and homophones (words that sound the same). Because the definition of homonymy requires groups of words to have different meanings, words that differ only subtlely in meaning may not be considered homonyms — “bank” can refer to a financial institution as a whole (such as Bank of America or Wells Fargo), or  to a branch or building from which the financial institution operates, or to the concept of engaging in secure financial transactions. These related words are called polysemes.

There is a special subset of homonyms called contronyms or auto-antonyms that are groups of words with different meaning, one of which is defined as the opposite of one of its other meaning.

  • You dust your furniture (remove), or dust a cake with powdered sugar (add).
  • Seatbelts buckle (fasten), and cars buckle (bend, then break).
  • You can go back in time (into the past), or push back a deadline (into the future).
  • There’s first-degree murder (the most severe), and first-degree burns (the least severe).
  • You can fix a toy (mend something), or fix a dog (make it never work again).
  • Food can be garnished (added), and wages can be garnished (removed).
  • An alarm can go off (make sounds), or be turned off (stop making sounds).
  • Stars can be out (visible), and lights can be out (not visible).
  • I can work out of my home, or work out of my office (be there, or not be there).
  • A lantern puts out heat (produces), and a fireman puts out fires (extinguishes).
  • They can screen a movie (show in public), or screen your calls (hide from public).
  • A house weathers a storm (endures), and smoking weathers your skin (damages).

Given all the intricacies, I certainly don’t blame anyone for having difficulty with the language.

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