How word origins can help you keep “-onym” words straight

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Posted: 
September 18, 2017
Written by: Natalie Ballard , Language Portal of Canada

I’m a word lover! Or, as I like to call myself, a wordie. You know, like a foodie, but with a passion for words. And as a wordie, I like to think that I know quite a bit about words. But I will admit that there is one type of word that still gives me trouble. It’s the kind ending in “-onym,” like “homonym.”

But I’ve found that learning the origins of certain “-onym” words has helped me remember their meaning. And I thought if a wordie like me still has trouble with “ onym” words, then surely some of you do, too.

So here’s a quick explanation to help us keep them straight.

Let’s start with the basics.

 

Synonyms and antonyms

A synonym is a word that has the same meaning as (or a similar meaning to) another word. For example, “buddy,” “pal” and “mate” are all synonyms for “friend.”

An antonym is a word that has the opposite meaning to another word. For example, “enemy” and “foe” are antonyms for “friend.”

Easy enough, right? Just remember that “syn-” is Greek for “together,” while “anti-” is Greek for “opposite.”

Now let’s look at some of the more complicated “-onym” words.

Homonyms

(This is where I usually get confused.)

Homonyms are words that have the same pronunciation or spelling but different meanings. There are 2 types:

  • Homophones (homonyms with the same pronunciation but different spellings, like “there,” “their” and “they’re,” and “or” and “oar”)
  • Homographs (homonyms with the same spelling)

But things get even more complicated, because homographs can be divided into two groups, according to pronunciation. Many pairs of homographs are pronounced the same, like “bank” (as in a financial institution) and “bank” (as in the edge of a river).

But some pairs of homographs are pronounced differently, like “produce” (as in “These factories produce shoes”) and “produce” (as in “This grocer sells fresh produce”). These types of homographs are sometimes called “heteronyms.”

See why I get confused?

It helps to remember that “homo-” comes from the Greek word “homos,” meaning “the same,” and “-phone” is Greek for “sound.” So homo-plus-phone means “same sound.”

The root “-graph,” on the other hand, means “something written.” So homo-plus-graph means “same writing.” And “hetero-” is Greek for “different,” so a heteronym is a homograph with a different pronunciation.

I hope that helps!

For more information on homonyms, along with examples, check out the Language Portal’s Writing Tip called homographs, homonyms, homophones.

What other words ending in “-onym” give you trouble? Let us know in the comments section. And if you have any tips or tricks for remembering what they mean, share those, too!

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The opinions expressed in posts and comments published on the Our Languages blog are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Language Portal of Canada.

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About the author

Natalie Ballard

Natalie worked as a translator at the Translation Bureau for five years before accepting an assignment as a language analyst at the Language Portal of Canada in 2015. She is a self-proclaimed language nerd (or “wordie,” as she prefers to be called) who enjoys sharing her love and knowledge of language with others.

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