The Grammarphobia Blog

Heteronyms: linguistic chameleons

Q: The word “wind” has one spelling, but two different pronunciations and meanings: 1) “The wind is blowing”; 2) “Did you wind your watch?” Is there a classification for a word like this? What other words are in this category?

A: Many (if not most) words have dual or triple or even quadruple roles as different parts of speech.

As you point out, “wind” (with a short “i”) is a noun for a stiff breeze; “wind” (with a long “i”) is a verb meaning to twist or wrap.

Another such pair with differently pronounced vowels is “row” (the noun meaning a quarrel) and “row” (the verb).

Many other such pairs exist, in which identically spelled words can be either nouns or verbs, depending on how they’re pronounced. They’re heteronyms—words with identical spellings but different pronunciations and meanings.

Most such words have more than one syllable. Here are some examples:

“record” (accented on the first syllable) is a noun, while “record” (accented on the second) is a verb; “conflict” (accented on the first syllable) is a noun, while “conflict” (accented on the second) is a verb; “permit” (accented on the first syllable) is a noun, while “permit” (accented on the second) is a verb; and “extract” (accented on the first syllable) is a noun, while “extract” (accented on the second) is a verb.

Some of the other words that follow this pattern include “addict,” “combat,” “compound,” “conduct,” “incense,” “insult,” “present,” “produce,” and “subject.”

Occasionally a spelling will change with a move in the stressed syllable, as with “envelope” (noun, accented on first syllable) and “envelop” (verb, accented on second).

The word “heteronym,” by the way, entered English in the late 19th century, according to published references in the Oxford English Dictionary. The earliest citation is from an entry in the first edition of the The Century Dictionary (1889-1991).

The OED defines the term as a “word having the same spelling as another, but a different sound and meaning: opp. to homonym and synonym.”

The dictionary says it was formed from an earlier adjective, “heteronymous,” which showed up in the 18th century and had a different meaning: “Having different names, as a pair of correlatives, e.g. husband, wife: opp. to synonymous.”

Both words are derived from the Greek heteros (different) and onoma (name).

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