MLP: Homo, hetero and even capito

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Editor’s note: Our favorite SOB (Snitty Old Bitty) still can’t type, but with her unbroken paw she can dust off some of her favorite columns. Here’s one of them.


Yes, your Mrs. Language Person is a Disney fan. Disney (and black-and-white movies from the ’40s and ’50s) comfort that Snitty Old Bitty, whose gripes and laments seek solace among the comforting yesteryears when courtesy — and far better vocabularies, betwixt both blue and white collars — were more rule than exception. Even the average Hollywood film waxed more intelligently once upon a time.

Ah, hearken to the days when to be human was to read, read, read! ‘Tis so natural to nourish and exercise the brain with thoughts fully developed by extensive study, notions to challenge the preconceived, and stories to stir the creative process. To be one’s fully realized self requires lifelong learning.

So from the Genie in “Aladdin” she takes her corny (if delayed) opening: “Bee yourself!” Dear Reader, if you didn’t see that one you need more sleep. Yes, “bee” and “be” are homophones. But not homographs, nor heteronyms. And while some might argue they are homonyms, they are not. Oh no.

Half-ing fun yet? (So she “tuque” a Germanic liberty there; MLP has the “write.” And for those unfamiliar with Canadian sartorial habits, a tuque is a knit hat — from the French “toque.”)

Oh she does tend toward tangent, does MLP.

From the Greek “homos” meaning “the same/belonging,” and “phon” (sound), a homophone sounds like another word, but has a different meaning and may (but needn’t) be spelled differently. Examples are bee (buzzing) and be (exist), pear (fruit) and pair (two), site (locate/location) and cite (quote/reference), tire (wheel) and tire (become fatigued), as well as rain (showers), reign (rule), and rein (bridle strap; slow a horse).

Homonyms (from Greek “nym,” word or name) sound and are spelled alike (yes!), but have different meanings. Tire and tire; left (direction) and left (gone); stalk (plant) and stalk (crime). All homonyms are homophones, but the opposite is not true. Consider that by (beside) and by (originating from) are homonyms and homophones; yet by, by, and buy are all homophones but all are not homonyms.

Note, Dear Reader: Be careful out there; certain alleged writing and grammar websites confuse homonyms with homophones, incorrectly instructing the unwary. Your Mrs. Language Person relies on linguists, those venerable students of the structure and (sniff, sniff) elusive preservation of language itself, its stalwart structure and order. Such as they remain.

Does irritation querulously creep, Dear Reader? Blame Doc West, former county coroner and budding word nerd. Today’s tortuous topic was his idea.

Now how about homographs (“graph” from Greek, meaning write)? Its etymological logic would lead (sounds like “leed,” not “led”) readers to the right (correct, not entitled) conclusion. Homographs, such as lie (truth) and lie (down), are spelled identically, but have different meanings.

Now with homographs as a larger umbrella, heteronyms fall underneath. Heteronyms (from Greek “heteros,” different/other) are a type of homograph which are spelled the same, but have different meanings and different sounds. So lie and lie would not qualify, but lead (metal) and lead (direct/guide) would, as do tear (sad) and tear (rip), bow (tied in a …) and bow (to a king), and bass (guitar) and bass (fish).

Now before ewe say “it’s and its,” kindly don’t, knot-sew-deer Reader. Shudder and shame, sea yore Mrs. Language Person sheik-ing her head. Dew yew have such a pore memory? And did you catch the 10 homophones in this paragraph?

Kindly take your daily constitutional along Memory Lane to two (ha! There they are again!) — yes, twice it was — MLP lamentations on the stubborn adherence to the misuse of “its” (belonging) and “it’s” (contraction of two words, “it” and “is”). Be wise to consider a contraction as neither homo- nor –nym of any sort; to do so may indeed be arguable, but hardly defensible, as may ignite further err in the suffocating air of linguistic abuse. Each of its two words must be respected in our dearly lamentable, languishing language. Respect is a habit best ne’er excepted.

So to recap:

Homophone = same sound, different meaning, spelling either way

Homonym = same spelling and sound, but different meaning

Homograph = same spelling, sound either way, different meaning

Heteronym = same spelling, different sound and meaning

Just for frolicking fun, Dear Reader, is a less common term for this tossed salad of words: Capitonym. Fear not; these are easy. The same is their spelling with only one difference: A capital letter. Polish (from Poland) and polish (as in the silver), or mercury (the element) and Mercury (the planet).

And that’s not all, Dear Reader. There is the oronym — paronymic phrases (whoops! There’s another one! Paronyms have the same sound, but different meaning and spelling): “I scream, you scream, we all scream for ice cream.”

Speaking of which, your MLP has dizzied her wee brain. Time for some Rocky Road.


Mrs. Language Person and Sholeh Patrick are columnists for the Hagadone News Network, easily confused and frequently bemused. Contact SP at MLP is too rude and unfriendly.

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