Exploring onyms

posted in: English language | 2

I was recently playing around with an online quiz that purported to test the size of your vocabulary. It basically used a test of your knowledge of synonyms and antonyms. I thought it would be interesting to explore these two different phenomena and other word-related categorisations. The suffix ‘onym’ means denoting a type of name or a word having a specified relationship to another (OED). It comes from the Greek onoma ‘name’. Whilst I knew a few different ‘onyms’ I was surprised to find that Wikipedia lists over fifty different words that end in the suffix onym.

Synonyms and antonyms

A synonym is a word that means the same as another word, so it can be used as an alternative without changing the meaning. Online dictionaries often offer a list of synonyms, which can be useful for adding variety to your writing. Some examples of synonyms are: child and kid; large and big; minor and trivial; idle and lazy. The opposite of a synonym is an antonym, which is a word that means the opposite of the other word, so word pairings like: big and small; near and far; high and low.

Homonyms and heteronyms

Two of my favourite word categories are homonyms and heteronyms, and if you’ve followed my Facebook pages over the years I did a whole series of postings of different combinations. Homonyms are words which sound or are spelled the same, but have a different meaning, such as bow (tied with a ribbon) and bow (used with an arrow); waist and waste; lead and led. To digress, and make matters slightly more complicated, you’ll also come across the terms homophones and homographs.

More complicated…

When I started to research this post I came across some differences of opinion about these three terms, even amongst credible sources, so I’ll stick with our good friend Fowler (Modern English Usage, 2016). Homophones are words that sound the same but have a different spelling and meaning: bear and bare; pair and pare; rain, rein and reign. Then, there are homographs which are spelt the same but have a different meaning and can be pronounced the same or differently, like tear (product of crying) and tear (to rip apart), or pen (a writing implement) and pen (a compound for animals). So Fowler’s explanation is that homophones and homographs are both types of the generic term homonym.
Phew, that was complicated, and I haven’t even got to heteronyms, which are words that have the same spelling as another word but a different sound and meaning. Examples are: close (near) and close (to shut); polish (to make shiny) and Polish (from Poland); row (move boat with oars) and row (an argument).

Test your vocab

There are lots of other onyms. In a previous blog post I looked at the difference between acronyms and abbreviations. An acronym is a word formed from the initials of one or more words, and it’s pronounced as one word, such as radar. Another common onym is pseudonym, a false or fictitious name. I’ll save the more unusual ones for another day, but meanwhile, if you fancy testing your vocabulary size you can find the test here, and let me know what your score was. [ps. I got 30,150 which apparently is on a par with Shakespeare, so either that is the result of lots of reading and editing, or the test is not too scientific!]

Synonyms, antonyms or homonyms?

2 Responses

  1. Karuna

    Nice read, Liz!