Homonym, homograph or homophone?

On an old episode of 30 Rock, disgruntled television executive Jack Donaghy tries to sabotage his network by greenlighting a slate of awful shows. Along with programming like Mandela starring Joe Rogan and a full hour of Gary Sinise’s band, one of the worst is called Homonym! It’s a game show that works like this: The host reads aloud a word to a contestant, just a word, and the contestant has to guess which meaning of the word is intended without any context.

Host: “Okay, your next word is meat.”

Contestant: “Um, when two people run into each other.”

Host: “Sorry. It’s the other one. Your next word is stare.”

Contestant: “Uh, okay, the things you climb —“

Host: “No. It’s the other one.”

Contestant: “It’s always the other one! Let me see the card!”

Host: “No! Never! Next word: sent.”

Contestant: “I don’t care. Cent like a penny.”

Host: “No. Sorry. No.”

Lights begin to flash.

Host: “It’s a Homonym! double-down. That means you get to guess again: sent.”

Contestant (brightening): “Okay, um, scent like a smell or an odor.”

Host: “No, it’s the third one.”

Contestant: “Go **** yourself.”

It was brilliant writing, with just one problem. Those aren’t homonyms. They’re homophones.

The Oxford English Grammar says that homonyms are "distinct words that happen to have the same form." Examples include the bank where you put money as opposed to the bank of a river. The bird called a duck is a homonym of the act of moving your head out of harm's way really fast: to duck. So homonym means, basically, "same name."

Words that are spelled differently but pronounced the same are "homophones." Ate as in he ate some cake and eight as in the number before nine are homophones. So are peak and pique, hair and hare, and cue and queue. In other words, homophones, as the “phone” part suggests, are all about sound. So meat/meet, stare/stair, and cent/scent/sent are homophones, not homonyms.

So what about words like dove in “A dove flew by” and dove in “He dove into the pool”? Words that are visually (graphically, if you will) the same but pronounced differently? Those are homographs, according to Oxford. Some more examples: the verb lead and the metal leaddoes the present singular of do, versus does, the plural of the female deer doesow, as in putting seeds in the ground, versus, sow, a female pig.

So homonyms are named the same. Homophones sound the same. Homographs look the same.

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