Word of the week

Word of the week: heteronym

Last year I wrote about homophones, words which sound the same but are spelt differently, like rowed, road and rode. A heteronym, on the other hand, is a word that has multiple meanings and pronunciations but is always spelt the same. “Bow” and “wound” are examples. The meaning and the pronunciation only become clear from the context. A violinist would scrape their bow across the strings and might wear a bow in her hair. (The word “bow” rhymes with “go” in both cases.) At the end of a performance she would take a bow, and when travelling by boat might prefer to sit in the bow rather than the stern. (In both of those examples “bow” rhymes with “cow”.) A doctor might examine a patient’s wound [rhyming with “crooned”] and then wound [rhymes with “sound”] a bandage around it.

There are fewer examples of heteronyms than homophones. When preparing this piece I could only think of four to begin with: bow, wound, row and lead. Two people hired a boat and then had a row about who was going to row first. The athlete took an early lead but finished last; his muscles had turned to lead.

A fifth example (“sow”) came to mind later on. The farmer checked on his sow, which had just given birth to 10 piglets, on the way to sow some potatoes in the next field.

I checked a few websites and the only other example that I might have come up with unaided was tear. I took my favourite shirt out of the wardrobe and shed a tear when I saw that it had a tear running all the way across it.

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