Homonym, Homophone, Heterograph, Heteronym, Polyseme, and Capitonym, Oh My!

by RS on January 6, 2012

A pet peeve I have is when I see the misuse of a homonym, homophone, heterograph, heteronym, polyseme, and capitonym. Say what? You know what a homonym is, but what the heck am I talking about?

Okay, let’s get to the very basics. The word Homonym comes from the Greek ὁμώνυμος (homonumos), which boils down to having the same name. Technically in linguistics, homonyms are words that share the same spelling and are pronounced the same, but have a different meaning. For example, bark (the sound a dog makes) and bark (part of a tree).

Homographs are words that are spelled the same, no matter the pronunciation but have a different meaning as in hound (a dog breed) or hound (to pester).  Homophones are words that share the same pronunciation, no matter how they’re spelled, but also have a different meaning, for example: fair (a public gathering) and  fare (a fee for public transportation).  If they’re spelled the same they’re both homographs and homonyms. For example, rose (the flower) and rose (past tense of to rise). Now let’s add another word to the mix: Heterographs. These are words that are spelled differently, but sound the same. We know them as to, too, two, and there, their, and they’re.

But wait, there’s more. Heteronyms are a subset of homographs (and let’s not forget homonyms) that have different pronunciations and meanings. In other words, they are homographs, but not homophones. These include row (as in an argument) and row (at to row a boat or a row of seats).

Moving away from the “homos and heteros” we get into Polysemes that have the same spelling, but related and distinct meanings. In other words, mouth (the orifice on your face) and mouth (the opening for a body of water or a cave) are polysemous.

And finally there are Capitonyms. These are words that share the same spelling, but have different meanings when they’re upper case. As in Polish (from Poland) polish (to make shiny) march (rhythmic walking) and March (the third month of the year).

Below is a chart for clarification*:

Term Meaning Spelling Pronunciation
Homonym    Different Same Same
Homograph   Different Same Same or different
Homophone  Different Same or different Same
Heteronym  Different Same Different
Heterograph     Different Different Same
Polyseme  Different  but  related Same Same or different
Capitonym  Different when  capitalized Same except forcapitalization Same or different

*Source: Wikipedia.

Alan Cooper created a list of homonyms, but are they homonyms, homographs, homophones, heteronyms, heterographs, polysemes or capitonyms? Now that you know the difference, go ahead and check them out just for the fun of it.

And there you have today’s lesson (note: not their or they’re).



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