I was recently sitting in the mountains on a bridge. No, the mountains were not on the bridge. I guess I was sitting on a bridge in the mountains. Or was I standing? Anyway, I was there on the bridge, and I was thinking deep thoughts. I might have been replaying the Johnny Rodgers punt return that he had in Nebraska’s win over Oklahoma in 1971 (still, in my opinion, the greatest game ever played). Or maybe I was trying to remember if I had had my coffee that morning.
Then, out of the blue, the question was asked me by a good friend who was also sitting or standing on the bridge, “What’s the difference between a homonym and a homophone?”
With the gentle wisdom that I’ve learned in my half-century of life here on this great planet, I answered with the confidence of a man who has heard it all. “It depends,” I responded. There was a pause, and I realized that my friend was waiting for the complete answer. So I decided to continue.
“It depends on what a homophone is,” I triumphantly stated, nodding wisely.
Okay, it’s time to get to the point. Somewhere in my elementary education I was either:
- A) misinformed
- B) not paying attention
- C) victim of a government plot by Communists somewhere to lead all American children astray in an attempt to hinder national productivity and intelligence
I suspect it was (C) but I cannot prove it. C, incidentally, is also responsible for Sesame Street, video games, and text messaging.
I did some research and here’s what I determined.
First, my concept of what constitutes a homonym was all wrong. I have spent the first fifty years of my life believing that homonyms are any words that sound alike. They DO sound alike, that is true. But that’s not the end of the story.
Homophones are words that sound alike. Two, to, and too are homophones.
Homographs are words that are written alike. Lead (to be in front) and lead (the metal used to make fishing weights) are homographs.
Homonyms are words that are homophones AND homographs.
In other words, all homonyms are homophones, but not all homophones are homonyms. All chihuahuas are dogs, but not all dogs are chihuahuas. So … a chihuahua is a metaphor for a homonym.
Stalk and stalk — the former being the base of a corn plant and the latter being the action of following somebody (or is it the other way around, and how do you know?) — are examples of homonyms.
Wow, talk about having your world turned upside down. This is akin to thinking for years that it was Neil Armstrong who first set foot on the moon, only to find (when you’re 50) that it was really Jimi Hendrix.
Why didn’t anyone tell me?
Not that I’m paranoid, but what other facts out there have I gotten wrong all my life? It makes one wonder …