A homonym comes from Latin homonymum and Greek homonumon (a word) having the same name. It represents one of two or more words that are identical in sound or spelling but different in meaning.
There are three kinds of homonyms:
- Homonyms: Those that sound and look alike (bank, a slope; bank, a place for money; and bank, a bench or row of switches).
- Homophones: Words that sound alike but do not look alike (coarse, course).
- Homographs: Words that look alike but do not sound alike (the verb lead [LEED] and the metal lead [LED].
Pronunciations can confuse the "clear definitions" of homonyms
Since we do not all pronounce words the same way, word pairs in one geographical area may not be homonyms in other locations.
Although a homonym is a word that has the same pronunciation as another word, but has a different meaning and spelling, this apparently clear and simple definition becomes less stable when we begin to analyze English words in order to classify them. We do not all pronounce words the same way, and these local or reginonal differences in pronunciations may cause word pairs that are homonyms in one area not to be considered as such in others.
Also, as changes in pronunciation are continually occurring, words that are pronounced the same at one time may not be pronouncd the same way at other times. There is, for example, a tendency to reduce the hw pronunciation of wh to w. So, when whale [HWAYL] is commonly pronounced [WAYL], it becomes homonymous with wail, a cry of suffering, and wale, a welt. Similarly, a word like real, which is still shown in most dictionaries as two syllables [REE uhl], tends to be reduced to one syllable, i.e., [REEL], which becomes homonymous with reel. Other common examples are liable—libel, higher—hire, flower—flour, and phial—file.
Don't confuse homonyms with homographs
A homonym should not be confused with a homograph, which is a word having the same spelling as another word, but having a different origin and meaning; for example, mail, meaning letters and mail, meaning armor. Sometimes the term homophone is used instead of homonym, but its usual meaning is a letter or symbol that spells the same sound as another letter or symbol; that is, the c and the k in cork spell the same sound, so they are homophones.
Go here for more information about Homophones and Homonyms, Explained and Demonstrated.
Unit of homo-, hom- words.
Confusing Words: Units, Groups A to Y.