Homonymy: Examples and Definition

Glossary of Grammatical and Rhetorical Terms

A skyline of international bank buildings on the river bank
The word bank as in "river bank" and "savings ​bank" are homonyms words.   Anthony John West/Getty Images

The word Homonymy (from the Greek—homos: same, onoma: name) is the relation between words with identical forms but different meanings—that is, the condition of being homonyms. A stock example is the word bank as it appears in "river bank" and "savings ​bank."

Linguist Deborah Tannen has used the term pragmatic homonymy (or ambiguity) to describe the phenomenon by which two speakers "use the same linguistic devices to achieve different ends" (Conversational Style, 2005). As Tom McArthur has noted, "There is an extensive gray area between the concepts of polysemy and homonymy" (Concise Oxford Companion to the English Language, 2005). 

Examples and Observations

"Homonyms are illustrated from the various meanings of the word bear (animal, carry) or ear (of body, of corn). In these examples, the identity covers both the spoken and written forms, but it is possible to have partial homonymy—or heteronymy—where the identity is within a single medium, as in homophony and homography. When there is ambiguity between homonyms (whether non-deliberate or contrived, as in riddles and puns), a homonymic clash or conflict is said to have occurred."
(David Crystal. A Dictionary of Linguistics and Phonetics, 6th ed. Blackwell, 2008)

Peer and Peep

"Examples of homonymy are peer ('person belonging to the same group in age and status') and peer ('look searchingly'), or peep ('making a feeble shrill sound') and peep ('look cautiously')."
(Sidney Greenbaum and Gerald Nelson, An Introduction to English Grammar, 3rd ed. Pearson, 2009)

Homonymy and Polysemy

"Homonymy and polysemy both involve one lexical form that is associated with multiple senses and as such both are possible sources of lexical ambiguity. But while homonyms are distinct lexemes that happen to share the same form, in polysemy a single lexeme is associated with multiple senses. The distinction between homonymy and polysemy is usually made on the basis of the relatedness of the senses: polysemy involves related senses, whereas the senses associated with homonymous lexemes are not related." (M. Lynne Murphy and Anu Koskela, Key Terms in Semantics. Continuum 2010)

Two Words, Same Form

"Linguists have long distinguished between polysemy and homonymy (e.g., Lyons 1977: 22, 235). Usually, an account like the following is given. Homonymy obtains when two words accidentally have the same form, such as bank 'land bordering on a river' and bank 'financial institution.' Polysemy obtains where one word has several similar meanings, such as may indicating 'permission' (e.g., May I go now?) and may indicating possibility (e.g., It may never happen). Since it is not easy to say when two meanings are totally different or unrelated (as in homonymy) or when they are just a little different and related (as in polysemy), it has been customary to adduce additional, more easily decidable criteria."

Dictionaries' Distinction

"Dictionaries recognize the distinction between polysemy and homonymy by making a polysemous item a single dictionary entry and making homophonous lexemes two or more separate entries. Thus head is one entry and bank is entered twice. Producers of dictionaries often make a decision in this regard on the basis of etymology, which is not necessarily relevant, and in fact separate entries are necessary in some instances when two lexemes have a common origin. The form pupil, for instance, has two different senses, 'part of the eye' and 'school child.' Historically these have a common origin but at present they are semantically unrelated. Similarly, flower and flour were originally 'the same word,' and so were the verbs to poach (a way of cooking in water) and to poach 'to hunt [animals] on another person's land'), but the meanings are now far apart and all dictionaries treat them as homonyms, with separate listing. The distinction between homonymy and polysemy is not an easy one to make. Two lexemes are either identical in form or not, but relatedness of meaning is not a matter of yes or no; it is a matter of more or less." (Charles W. Kreidler, Introducing English Semantics. Routledge, 1998)

No Clear Cut Homonymy

"The trouble is that, although helpful, these criteria are not totally compatible and do not go all the way. There are cases where we may think that the meanings are clearly distinct and that we therefore have homonymy, but which cannot be distinguished by the given linguistic formal criteria, e.g., charm may denote 'a kind of interpersonal attraction' and may also be used in physics denoting 'a kind of physical energy.' Not even the word bank, usually given in most textbooks as the archetypical example of homonymy, is clear-cut. Both the 'financial bank' and the 'river bank' meanings derive by a process of metonymy and metaphor, respectively from Old French banc 'bench.' Since bank in its two meanings belongs to the same part of speech and is not associated with two inflectional paradigms, the meanings of bank are not a case of homonymy by any of the above criteria...Traditional linguistic criteria for distinguishing homonymy from polysemy, although no doubt helpful, in the end turn out to be insufficient."(Jens Allwood, "Meaning Potentials and Context: Some Consequences for the Analysis of Variation in Meaning." Cognitive Approaches to Lexical Semantics, ed. by Hubert Cuyckens, René Dirven, and John R. Taylor. Walter de Gruyter, 2003)

Aristotle on Homonymy

"Those things are called homonymous of which the name alone is common, but the account of being corresponding to the name is different...Those things are called synonymous of which the name is common, and the account of being corresponding to the name is the same."(Aristotle, Categories)

Astonishing Sweep

"The sweep of Aristotle's application of homonymy is in some ways astonishing. He appeals to homonymy in virtually every area of his philosophy. Along with being and goodness, Aristotle also accepts (or at times accepts) the homonymy or multivocity of: life, oneness, cause, source or principle, nature, necessity, substance, the body, friendship, part, whole, priority, posteriority, genus, species, the state, justice, and many others. Indeed, he dedicates an entire book of the Metaphysics to a recording and partial sorting of the many ways core philosophical notions are said to be. His preoccupation with homonymy influences his approach to almost every subject of inquiry he considers, and it clearly structures the philosophical methodology that he employs both when criticizing others and when advancing his own positive theories." (Christopher Shields, Order in Multiplicity: Homonymy in the Philosophy of Aristotle. Oxford University Press, 1999).

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Nordquist, Richard. "Homonymy: Examples and Definition." ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, thoughtco.com/homonymy-words-and-meanings-1690839. Nordquist, Richard. (2023, April 5). Homonymy: Examples and Definition. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/homonymy-words-and-meanings-1690839 Nordquist, Richard. "Homonymy: Examples and Definition." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/homonymy-words-and-meanings-1690839 (accessed June 4, 2023).