A homophone is a word that’s pronounced the same as another word but has a different definition.
Homophones can sometimes have a different spelling and even a slightly different pronunciation. They should be mostly similar though. The phrase also applies to phrases, letters, and groups of letters that are pronounced the same as other versions of the same thing. It’s very common to find homophones used in poetry in order to create rhymes and/or to emphasize a sound or meaning.
Definition and Explanation of Homophone
A homophone is a word that has the same sound as another word but a different definition. If the two words are spelled differently, which is often the case, they are also called heterotrophs. Another aspect of homophones that’s interesting to note is how different accents have different effects on the words. Some words might be homophonous in one accent and not in another. For example, “do” and “due” in an American accent are usually homophones but are not in many English accents. The same can be said of the words “forward” and “forward” in English and American accents. The word “homophone” is derived from the Greek meaning “same” and “voice” or “utterance.”
Homophones in Games and Puzzles
Homophones are sometimes used in puns, games, and puzzles, in order to suggest multiple meanings and deceive (usually for fun) the reader. These are sometimes also used in malapropisms where the wrong word is used to comic effect (although that’s not always the author’s intention).
Longer phrases also appear in word games and puzzles. They’re easily incorporated into jokes and pithy sayings. For example, “I moustache you a question” in which the word “moustache” is used rather than “must ask.”
Types of Homophones
- Homograph: homophones that have similar or identical spellings but different definitions.
- Homonym: words that have the same pronunciation but different meanings. For example: “Carrot, caret, and carat.”
- Heterograph: are homophones with different spellings but are pronounced the same way. For example: “bear” and “bare.”
- Oronym: words or phrases that have similar sounds. One word might have the same sound as a phrase. For example, “mustache” and “must ask.”
- Pseudo-homophone: words that are identical phonetically but one isn’t a real word.
Common Homophones in English
- Bear and bare
- Rose (a flower) and rose (past tense of “rise”)
- Carrot, caret, and carat
- Ad and add
- Arc and ark
- Ewe, yew, and you
- Faint and feint
- Licker and liquor
- Lean and lien
- Scull and skull
- Sear, seer, and sere
- Straight and strait
- Tale and tail
Examples of Homophones in Literature
Romeo and Juliet by William Shakespeare
In William Shakespeare’s poems and plays, readers can find a great number of homophones. One of the most commonly cited appears in the following lines of Romeo and Juliet.
Mercutio: “Nay, gentle Romeo, we must have you dance.”
Romeo:“Not I, believe me. You have dancing shoes. With nimble soles; I have a soul of lead. So stakes me to the ground I cannot move …
In the lines, Romeo uses the homophones “soul” and “sole.” He’s talking about the weight of his soul and his emotions while at the same time connecting it to his ability to dance and the “soles” of his shoes.
Faithless Sally Brown by Thomas Hood
In Hood’s ‘Faithless Sally Brown’ the poet includes homophones in the last stanza:
His death, which happen’d in his berth,
At forty-odd befell:
They went and told the sexton, and
The sexton toll’d the bell.
Here, he uses the words “toll’d” and “berth” and allude to their homophones “told” and “birth.” He uses “toll’d” to speak about the bell being rung after he died.
Read more of Thomas Hood’s poetry.
A Hymn to God the Father by John Donne
In ‘A Hymn to God the Father,’ Donne uses his own last name, which is also the last name of his wife, as homophones.
When Thou hast done,
Thou hast not done for I have more.
That at my death Thy Son
Shall shine as he shines now, and heretofore
And having done that, Thou hast done;
I fear no more.
In this passage, readers can also spot the use of “Son” rather than “sun” in the second line. This is a religious allusion and homophone. It’s not necessary for Donne to include the other version of the word, “sun” anywhere in the passage. Readers will be able to understand what he is trying to say without it.
Read more John Donne’s poems.
The Importance of Being Earnest by Oscar Wilde
Wilde’s best-known and well-loved play, The Importance of Being Earnest alludes to a homophone in its title and uses it a few times throughout the text. Here are a few lines.
On the contrary, Aunt Augusta, I’ve now realized for the first time in my life the vital Importance of Being Earnest[…]
I always told you, Gwendolen, my name was Ernest, didn’t I? Well, it is Ernest after all. I mean it naturally is Ernest.
In these passages from The Importance of Being Earnest, the characters use “earnest” and “Ernest,” the name, as homophones. Jack Earnest is talking to his Aunt and mocking his family. His father’s name makes him “Ernest” and “earnest” in a way that relates back to the broader storyline.
Explore Oscar Wilde’s poetry.
Why Do Writers Use Homophones?
Writers use homophones in order to create a humorous or clever effect in their writing. When words with two or more meanings are used, the reader is asked to stop and consider them and think for a moment about which meaning the writer has selected. They can be used in everyday life, and in the dialogue between characters, in order to prove one’s wit and make another laugh. Often, the best writers use them flawlessly and easily include them in descriptions, narrations, and dialogues.
Related Literary Terms
- Ambiguity: a word or statement that has more than one meaning. If a phrase is ambiguous, it means multiple things.
- Analogy: an extensive comparison between one thing and another that is very different from it.
- Cadence: the natural rhythm of a piece of text, created through a writer’s selective arrangement of words, rhymes, and the creation of meter.
- Connotation: the feeling a writer creates through their word choice. It’s the idea a specific word or set of words evokes.
- Euphony: a literary device that refers to the musical, or pleasing, qualities of words.