Have fun with homonyms!

BBC Radio 4 is broadcasting a history of variety and last night’s instalment featured the 1938 launch of the long-running show Bandwagon, including Arthur Askey’s ‘chestnut corner’ routine. During this he and his partner ‘Stinker’ Murdoch rattled off a succession of hoary old schoolboy jokes designed to make the audience groan. But I’d somehow missed one of them during my schooldays so it made me smile, while doffing my cap at dear old Arthur for incorporating two homonyms in a one-line gag:

Stinker: “What do your people do?” Arthur: “They’re in the iron and steel business – my mother irons and my father steals!”

I have a weakness for homonyms and, thanks to a chat on the subject with JD when we shared an engine room, I knew there was more than one variety of the breed. But being woolly on the details I looked them up. The OED duly confirmed that a homonym is a “word of the same form as another but different sense; homograph or homophone...” Little the wiser I turned to Wikipedia, which warns that there are many contradictory views on this subject; I found whole sites devoted to each variant.

However, www.editingandwritingservices.com offers the following which I found illuminating, with good potential for wordmanship.

Homonym One of two or more words having the same sound and often the same spelling but different meanings. Examples: quail (cower), and quail (bird); fair (appearance), fair (county fair), and fair (reasonable).

Homophone One of two or more words pronounced the same but different in meaning, origin, and sometimes spelling. Examples: cite, sight, and site; sea and see; your and you're; bow and bough.

Homograph One of two or more words spelled alike but different in origin, meaning, and sometimes pronunciation. Examples: bow of a ship, a bow and arrow, and a bow (deference/manners).

Heteronym One of two or more words that are spelled the same but that differ in pronunciation and meaning. Examples: bass (voice) and bass (fish); polish (shine) and Polish (from Poland); tear (rip) and tear (from eye).

So iron/iron and steel/steal are both homonyms, but steel/steal is also a homophone and iron/iron isn’t (though the “sometimes” in these definitions remind us that they are open to argument). Iron/iron aren't homographs as they share a root; neither are steal/steel as they are spelled differently. Neither pair are hetronyms as they are pronounced the same.

Wikipedia sums it up thusly:

“The words bow and bough are interesting because there are two meanings associated with a single pronunciation and spelling (the weapon and the knot); there are two meanings with two different pronunciations (the knot and the act of bending at the waist), and there are two distinct meanings sharing the same sound but different spellings: (bow, the act of bending at the waist, and bough, the branch of a tree). In addition, it has several related but distinct meanings - a bent line is sometimes called a 'bowed' line, reflecting its similarity to the weapon. Thus, even according to the most restrictive definitions, various pairs of sounds and meanings of bow and bough are homonyms, homographs, homophones, heterophones, heterographs, and are polysemous.”

But if you want to research polysemes and capitonyms, you’re on your own.

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