I. What is a Homograph?
A homograph is one of two or more words which are spelled identically but which have completely separate meaning, origin, and possibly pronunciation. This is revealed by the combination of “homo,” meaning same, and “graph,” meaning written.
II. Examples of a Homograph
Because these two (or more) words look exactly the same, context is key in the identification of a homograph. Here are some examples which use them.
“I’ve been playing the bass in this band for four years now.”
Obviously, this is not a person who is claiming to play the type of fish called a “bass” in their band! However, it is spelled the exact same, although the pronunciation of the “a” sound is different. (This also qualifies it as a heteronym, which we will discuss later.)
“Look at that bat.”
Now we can see how a lack of context may make homographs very confusing. Are we looking at a winged animal called a “bat” or the sporting equipment used in baseball? To make it additionally confusing, they’re pronounced exactly the same! (This qualifies “bat” as a homonym and a homophone, which we’ll cover next.) Let’s try again.
“Look at him swing that bat!”
Now we can make an educated guess as to exactly which kind of “bat” this sentence refers.
III. Types of Homograph
A homophone is one of two or more words which have the same (“homo”) sound (“phone”), but may or may not have the same spelling. When they do have the same spelling, they are also homographs.
“This tire is going to need to be replaced.”
“Don’t tire yourself out before the movie.”
Again, particularly due now to the identical pronunciation, context is paramount for the definition of “tire.”
A heteronym, like a homophone, is one of two or more words which have differing meanings. These are differentiated from homophones by possessing a pronunciation distinct from one another. If they also possess the same spelling, they qualify as homographs.
“The dolphin will never desert a member of its family.”
“The desert is particularly dangerous at this time of year.”
A homonym is one of two or more words which have the same spelling and pronunciation, but different meanings. The key difference between type B and type C of the homograph is in pronunciation. A homonym is always a homograph.
“Be careful; the stalks of these plants are riddled in thorns.”
“The cat stalks from the room, defeated.”
Like a Venn diagram, these types intersect and differentiate. The best way to clearly understand which words qualify for what terms is to understand the roots of the terms, which deal exclusively in spelling and pronunciation. While a homophone (same pronunciation) or a heteronym (different pronunciation) are not always a homograph, a homonym always is.
IV. The Importance of Homographs
It is important to be capable of identifying homographs. The most vital purpose in this is the avoidance of confusion, particularly if the words are written, not spoken, and one must rely solely on context to infer meaning from otherwise identical spelling. For example, if you are unaware of the multiple meanings behind the homograph “shot,” it could be very confusing to receive a note which says, “You’re going to get a shot this afternoon!” Does it refer to an opportunity, or an antibiotic? We could add some helping words for context. “You’re going to get a shot, or a pill, this afternoon.” We could use the word “pill” as a hint that this is an alternative to the shot.
In a less serious sense, homographs play important roles in pop culture, such as the very common form of wordplay known as the pun.
V. Examples of Homographs in Literature
Homographs have been used in literature, across time periods and cultures, in order to introduce ambiguity to the text, foreshadow developments in plot, invite humor in a pun, or invite deeper thought in a riddle.
For example, in “Romeo and Juliet,” William Shakespeare uses homographs to illustrate the characters of Romeo and Mercutio, as well as a device to advance plot.
Being heavy, I will bear the light.
In this prose, Romeo is playing off of the opposites of heavy and light, both as emotional states and as weights. He is also talking about receiving a literal torch! “Light” in this usage successfully achieves a triple-tier of definitions.
Ask for me tomorrow, and you will find me a grave man.
Here we see Mercutio using homographs in a pun, both to gloss over the drama of the event and to inform that he is dying. “Grave” means serious, but it also refers to one’s final resting place.
In the New Testament of the Bible (Matthew 16:18), Jesus Christ informs his disciple, Peter, of his important role in the church by using a homograph, “rock.” Although rock is already a homograph on multiple conventional levels (the material, the gesture, and the genre of music), Jesus uses it creatively, to refer to his disciple, Peter.
“And I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it.”
The Greek word for Peter (Cephas) means rock! So Jesus is not only referring to a literal rock, which may be the physical foundation of a church building, but also to the importance of Peter himself in the spiritual church.
VI. Examples of Homograph in Pop Culture
The homograph appears throughout pop culture, from bumper stickers to amusing conversation-starters to clever song lyrics.
In the song called “Dental Care” by pop performer Owl City, we see a homograph used successfully in this lyric:
“I’ve been to the dentist a thousand times / So I know the drill.”
This relies on the alternate definition of drill, as both a tool used by dentists and in the sense of a routine.
The popular sticker, “I miss my ex . . . but my aim is getting closer!” depends on the double meaning of the word “miss,” both as in longing and as in failing to strike. This is also an example of the revelation of irony, because the “speaker” obviously does not miss their ex in the sense of longing for them. In fact, the next portion of the sentence reveals its true meaning as precisely the opposite.
Major comedians such as Steven Wright and Mitch Hedberg defined a style of one-liners which relied on such devices. Jay London, with the prop of a step ladder, he says, “This is my stepladder. I never knew my real ladder.” The humor is derived from the layered meaning of “step.” He refers not only to the size and purpose of the ladder, but to the prefix “step-“ as in the prefix denoting that this is some sort of substitute.
VII. Related Terms
A capitonym is almost exactly like a homograph, and might even be confused with a homograph if it is portrayed incorrectly, but the differentiation in spelling relies on the use of a capital letter.
“Mercury is the closest planet to the Sun.”
“Even trace amounts of mercury may be fatal over time.”
This is probably the way you will most often see homographs intentionally used. Puns appear everywhere because a pun can be short and quick. They’re not just one-liners in songs and shows but on t-shirts and bumper stickers. The source of the wordplay is the use of a homograph or homophone for its comedic or intellectual value.
On the show Friends, an ophthalmologist is hosting a work party. Upon entering the room, he brandishes two champagne flutes and jokes, “Who needs glasses?”
Although discussion of utilizing the homograph in devices such as the pun may cause them to seem painstakingly constructed, language is filled with homographs and connections drawn between words. As our ophthalmologist friend discovered, oftentimes plays on words are right in front of your face!
VIII. Homograph: Pass the Quiz… But Don’t Pass It!
In conclusion, homographs occur incidentally all the time, and are easily differentiated by the context of the sentence. However, you can use them creatively to convey the multiple meanings behind the text. This is common in multiple genres and useful for a variety of narrative devices.