Grammar Glossary for Spanish Students

Catalonian dance for lesson on Spanish homonyms
Un baile tradicional de Cataluña. (A traditional Catalonian dance.). Joan Valls; Creative Commons.

Definition of 'Homonym'

One of two or more words that are spelled the same and pronounced the same but have different meanings. Most commonly, the words have different origins and developed separately but coincidentally ended up being written and pronounced the same way. An English-language example is "jerky," which can describe something that moves abruptly or refer to a type of dried meat.

Although the definition just given appears to be the most common, sometimes "homonym" is applied to homophones (homófonos in Spanish), two or more words that sound alike, even if they aren't spelled differently, and/or homographs (homógrafos), two or more words that are written alike, although they may not have the same pronunciation (which wouldn't occur in Spanish).

"Homonym" is also sometimes used to refer to Spanish word pairs such as que and qué, which are spelled and pronounced the same but distinguished by an accent mark.

The concept of homonyms is related to but distinguished from the concept of polysemy (polisemia), which refers to the tendency of words to develop more than one meaning. In most dictionaries, homonyms are listed separately, while polysemes have a single listing. Example of polysemes are "course" in English and its Spanish equivalent, curso, which both have wide-ranging meanings.

Also Known As

Homónimo in Spanish.

Example of English Homonyms

One common set of English homonyms is "ball," meaning a spherical object, and "ball," a type of dance. The first word comes from an Old English word (one distantly related to the Spanish word bola), the second from the Latin ballare, to dance.

Examples of Spanish Homonyms

Interestingly, there's a related set of Spanish homonyms.

 The Spanish baile, meaning a dance, comes from the same Latin word as the dance type of "ball." The homonym of baile is, of course, baile, a type of judge, which comes from an Aragonese word and is distantly related to the English word "bailiff."

Another common example from Spanish is the pair para, a preposition often meaning "for," and para, a conjugated form of the verb parar, meaning "to stop."