• homonym •
Pronunciation: hah-mê-nim • Hear it!
Part of Speech: Noun
Meaning: A word with the same sound or spelling as another word but a different meaning, as pear, pare and pair or dope (idiot) and dope (drugs).
Notes: Today's word refers to a lexical situation that is the basis of many jokes, especially puns like those in our Punny Pages and ambiguous newspaper headlines. In the headlines, "Iraqi Head Seeks Arms," we have two homonyms that are spelled identically. The man who bought his boys a ranch and called it the Focus Ranch because it was where the sons raise meat (sun's rays meet), used three homonyms spelled differently. The noun is homonymy, as the homonymy of pair and pear, and the adjectives are homonymic [hah-mê-nim-ik] or homonymous [hê-mah-nê-mês]—your choice.
In Play: Situations arise when you can use this good word itself: "Well, if he didn't say he was getting married, he used a homonym." But it is more enjoyable to think of funny ways to use homonyms, such as these real newspaper headlines: "Soviet Virgin Lands Short of Goal Again" and "British Left Waffles on Falkland Islands." Here each of the words, lands, left, and waffles, refer to two homonyms. (During the Soviet period, the Russians developed virgin lands for farming in Kazakhstan and elsewhere.)
Word History: Today's good word comes from a Latin borrowing of Greek homonymon, the neuter of homonymos "homonymous". The Greek word is a combination of homos "same" + onyma "name". The Greek word for "same" comes from a PIE ancestor, sem-/som- "together, as one", with that ablaut vowel, sometimes [o], sometimes [e]. It is the same stem that made it to English as same. In Russian it emerged as sam "self", found in words like samovar "self-boiler" from sam + var(it') "to boil". With a suffix -l, it devolved into Latin simul "at the same time", which we see in our borrowing simultaneous. We aren't quite sure why some word-initial Ss became [h] in Greek, but some did.