Synonyms and homonyms

Synonyms and homonyms

Do you know the difference between synonyms and homonyms? I don’t. And it’s not for lack of trying. I’ve read up on the subject multiple times. I’ve even reported what I’ve learned, writing here and elsewhere about the differences between not just these two words but also antonyms, homographs and homophones. And because I can’t remember the difference, I suspect others might like a refresher, too.

Synonyms are different words with the same or nearly the same meaning. Think and ponder. Confuse and baffle. Lazy and indolent. Pacify and placate. True and accurate. Hot and searing. We have lots of them in English, and they’re a boon to anyone who appreciates word variation and interesting language.

Antonyms are opposites. Confuse and clarify. Lazy and energetic. Pacify and aggravate. True and false. Hot and cold.

What’s interesting is that most synonym pairs and antonym pairs are far from perfect. You could argue that any of the synonyms mentioned isn’t exactly the same as the word I paired it up with. Subtle differences can be found anywhere you look for them. You could say to “confuse” is merely to make one small thing unclear while “baffle” means to confuse someone so badly that she’s overwhelmed by uncertainty.

Ditto that for many antonym pairs. Cold, you could say, isn’t so much the opposite of hot as it is the absence of heat. Lazy, you could say, isn’t so much the opposite of energetic as it is a form of depression.

Or you could argue that my examples are hooey. Either way, the point is that language doesn’t produce a lot of mathematical equivalencies and all these words have nuances that let us bend them to serve our purposes.

Homonyms aren’t as widely understood, but the concept quickly comes into focus with a refresher: The bank where you put your money and the bank on the side of a river are homonyms. They are, as the Oxford English Grammar puts it, “distinct words that happen to have the same form.” They don’t even have to be the same part of speech. A duck that quacks is a noun. Telling someone to lower his head by yelling “duck” is to use a verb. These two meanings of “duck” are homonyms. The easiest way to remember all this is that “homo” means “same” and “nym,” in both the Latin and Greek origins of the word, means “name.” Homonyms are words with the “same name.”

Keep that etymology in mind for our next topic: Homophones. With the first part of the word meaning “same,” it’s pretty easy to guess that homophones have same sounds. They’re words that sound the same but differ in meaning and/or spelling. Knight and night are obvious examples. So are ate and eight. Another example: Base and bass. They sound identical, but have little else in common.

Now think about the word “homograph.” As you might guess, this has to do with how the words look on paper, which comes down to how they’re spelled. Oxford says, “Homographs are spelled the same but pronounced differently.”

The verb “lead” and the metal “lead” are good examples. A female pig is a “sow,” which without context is indistinguishable from the verb “sow,” which means to plant seeds.

There’s one more word in this group that I’ve learned about then quickly forgot: “Homomorph.” This term applies to words that are basically the same in meaning but are distinct grammatically. The stuff in your paint bucket is paint — a noun. But when you dip your brush then spread it on the wall, you paint — a verb.

So the noun form and the verb form are homomorphs. So are adverbs that are identical to their adjective counterparts, like “fast.” A car that hits high speeds moves fast — an adverb because it modifies a verb. But the car itself is fast — an adjective because it modifies a noun. Same basic word but different parts of speech, so they’re homomorphs.

— June Casagrande is the author of “The Joy of Syntax: A Simple Guide to All the Grammar You Know You Should Know.” She can be reached at JuneTCN@aol.com.