English Lesson: What are Heteronyms?

Every Monday, someone in my office writes a riddle or quiz on the conference room whiteboard to help get the week started. This week’s puzzle:

“What one English word is pronounced differently when the first letter is capitalized?”

Homonyms are groups of words that have the same sound and spelling but have different meaning (“fair” means reasonable and also refers to a carnival), so the answer is not a pair of homonyms. Heteronyms, on the other hand, are words that have the same spelling, but differ in both pronunciation and meaning.

Like many language-specific word games, there is more than one answer to this heteronymic puzzler: polish vs Polishaugust vs August; nice vs Nice, France; lima bean vs Lima, Peru; job vs the biblical Job; rainier vs Mt. Rainier; said vs Said, Egypt; ares vs the god Ares; male vs Male, Maldives; worms vs Worms, Germany; and many more.

One of my favorite comedic uses of heteronyms was from a 1982 episode of the BBC’s classic sitcom, “Yes, Minister“. When cabinet minister Jim Hacker decided to ignore a complaint that he received, he used a euphemism for a garbage can and labeled the complaint with “Round Objects” (as in, “spherical things”). Later in the episode, civil servant Humphrey commented on the cryptic complaint, reiterated by Bernard asking “Who is Round and to what does he object?”

Speaking of round objects…

The Tale of Maria’s Breasts

These themed examples of heteronyms do not meet the capitalization requirement of the original puzzle, but the illustration of concepts sure makes learning fun!

Photo © iStockPhoto.com / Miroslav Ferkuniak

  • The plastic surgeon will implant the second implant in the flat-chested Maria tomorrow morning.
  • For the sake of the morning’s surgery, he will not drink sake while eating his shrimp tempura tonight at dinner.
  • The surgeon’s attorney took deliberate care to deliberate the language of the agreement.
  • The doctor signed a contract to contract Maria’s breasts if she thinks they are too big. Fat chance!
  • At the last minute during surgery, the doctor made a minute adustment to perfect the position of Maria’s perfect left nipple.
  • As such, Maria’s left breast remained number than her right for a number of hours.
  • The nurse wound a compress around Maria’s chest to compress her surgical wound.
  • Maria now attributes the great look of her new attributes to the brilliant plastic surgeon; the evening of her breasts make her look stunning in an evening gown!
  • So far, Maria has found no one to contest her winning the nicest-fake-bøøbs-ëvër contest.
  • Alex the drug dealer (Maria’s next-door neighbor) tried to addict others with his wares, but soon became an addict himself — to voyeurism.
  • When Alex fell off the roof again while peeping into Maria’s bedroom window, it only served to compound the injury of his existing compound fracture.
  • I suspect that the jury will take the suspect‘s status as an invalid into consideration, and throw out the case as invalid.
  • The town counsel felt that the judge’s decision to appropriate Alex’s meth lab was appropriate.
  • The now big-breasted Maria shed a tear when the bulldozer began to tear down Alex’s house; it used to house her grandmother.

Sadly, I’ve never met the fictitious Maria pictured above, seeing her only through the screen of my computer console when I purchased a license of her image from iStockPhoto. Otherwise, I would have been happy to console her myself.

3 Responses to “English Lesson: What are Heteronyms?”

  1. Sean

    “Round objects” is one of my favorites, too, although I didn’t realize it was a heteronym.

    I also don’t recall for sure which series it was in, but if it was “Yes, Minister” than Hacker had not yet failed upwards to the PM job.

  2. Richard

    The word “round” is a homonym. Since “objects” is pronounced differently based on usage, it is a heteronym.

    An oops. Jim’s title has been reduced.

  3. Sean

    Ok, there’s gotta be some joke to make about mixing the homo- and hetero- there, but I haven’t had my morning coffee yet and just can’t come up with it. (And since I don’t drink coffee, I suppose it’s doubtful I will…)


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