Examples of Homonyms in Literature

Definition of Homonyms

Homonyms are same sound words. They have different meanings and spellings. Homonyms are found in various forms including homophones, words that sound the same but are spelled differently and have different meanings, and homographs, words that are spelled the same but have different meanings.

Homonyms are a fascinating linguistic phenomenon that adds depth, ambiguity and humor to literary works. Let’s see some examples of homonyms.

Common Examples of Homonyms

Following are the common examples of homonyms:

  1. Pair : Pear
  2. Flew : Flue
  3. Brake : Break
  4. Flour : Flower
  5. Meat : Meet
  6. Write : Right

Examples of Homonyms in literature

Example#1

“The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” by S. T. Coleridge

“And every soul, it passed me by,
Like the whizz of my cross-bow!”

In the excerpt, the word homonym “soul” refers to the human spirit and the sole of a shoe. The Mariner’s solitude is emphasized through the play on words.

Example#2

“Romeo and Juliet” by William Shakespeare

“Tis but thy name that is my enemy;
Thou art thyself, though not a Montague.
What’s Montague? it is nor hand, nor foot,
Nor arm, nor face, nor any other part
Belonging to a man.”

The excerpt refers to the balcony scene, where Romeo and Juliet profess their love for each other despite being from the rival Montague and Capulet families. Juliet laments that Romeo’s surname, Montague, is her enemy, not Romeo himself. She then questions the significance of the name Montague and states that it is neither a hand, foot, arm, face nor any other part belonging to a man. Here, the writer cleverly uses the homonym “piece” (peace) in place of “Capulet,” implying that the name itself is not a physical entity or part of a person.

The homonym “piece” (peace) adds a layer of irony and symbolism to the passage. It hints at the idea that if the families were to find peace and put aside their family names and grudges, their love could flourish without the burden of their family identities.

Example#3

“The Importance of Being Earnest” by Oscar Wilde

“My dear fellow, the truth isn’t quite the sort of thing one tells to a nice, sweet, refined girl. What extraordinary ideas you have about the way to behave to a woman!”

The author employs the homonym “nice” to create a humorous double meaning. The speaker indicates that one should not tell the truth to a “nice, sweet, and refined girl.” The word “nice” describes a polite, well-mannered, and proper young woman. The author uses the homonym word “nice” to connote the meaning of “precise” or “exact.” This second interpretation creates a sense of irony and wit in the statement.

The second part of the excerpt, i.e., “What extraordinary ideas you have about the way to behave to a woman!” It further emphasizes the humorous contrast between the conventional expectations of treating a woman and the speaker’s seemingly unorthodox views.

Example#4

“Alice in Wonderland” by Lewis Carroll

“When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less.”

The character Humpty Dumpty uses a play on words to stress the idea of language being subjective and open to interpretation. The homonym in question is the word “mean,” which refers to both a word’s intended meaning and definition. When Humpty Dumpty says, “it means just what I choose it to mean,” he proposes that the meaning of a word is not fixed and absolute; rather, it is determined by the speaker’s interpretation or intention. Adding “neither more nor less” reinforces Humpty Dumpty’s unyielding stance on his authority over the meaning of words. He rejects the idea of any additional nuance or complexity beyond his definition.

Example#5

“The Unbearable Lightness of Being” by Milan Kundera

“The heaviest of burdens crushes us, we sink beneath it, it pins us to the ground. But in the love poetry of every age, the woman longs to be weighed down by the man’s body.”

Here, the homonyms “weighed” and “weighed” contrast burden and desire’s physical and emotional aspects. The first part of the excerpt, “The heaviest of burdens crushes us, we sink beneath it, it pins us to the ground,” uses the word “weighed” in the literal sense of being physically burdened and oppressed by a heavyweight. It describes the overwhelming nature of a physical burden that can pin us down and leave us feeling crushed. In the second part, “But in the love poetry of every age, the woman longs to be weighed down by the man’s body,” the author uses the homonym “weighed” in a figurative sense. Here, “weighed down” refers to the emotional desire and longing for the weight or presence of a lover’s body. This clever use of homonyms allows the writer to explore the paradoxical nature of human experience.

Example#6

“The Scarlet Letter” by Nathaniel Hawthorne

“But there is a fatality, a feeling so irresistible and inevitable that it has the force of doom, which almost invariably compels human beings to linger around and haunt, ghost-like, the spot where some great and marked event has given the color to their lifetime.”

The author skillfully uses the homonym “haunt” to convey two distinct meanings. It adds depth and symbolism to the passage. The first meaning of “haunt” is in the literal sense of frequently visiting and lingering around a particular place. The author describes a powerful and irresistible feeling that compels human beings to remain near the location where a significant event occurred.

The author then employs the homonym “haunt” in its secondary meaning. It evokes the idea of a ghostly and spectral presence. The writer describes humans as lingering “ghost-like” at these meaningful locations. He creates haunting imagery and indicates that the impact of these life-altering events has left a lasting and ethereal mark on the individuals.

Function of Homonyms

Homonyms perform various functions in literature. They create puns, add layers of meaning and contribute to wordplay. The writers employ homonyms to:

  1. Introduce humor or wit through puns and double entendres.
  2. Explore the complexities of language and the ambiguity of words.
  3. Convey deeper meanings and symbolism through the contrasting definitions of homonyms.
  4. Create memorable and thought-provoking lines that resonate with readers.

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