Sunday, January 23, 2011


Homograph \HOM-uh-graf\ , noun;
1. A word of the same written form as another but of different meaning, whether pronounced the same way or not

This word dates to around 1810 and is a combination of homo- + -graph. Homo- is a common prefix in the formation of modern words. It means "the same" and comes from Greek homos, meaning "one and the same" and "belonging to two or more jointly." Homos derives from Proto-Indo-European *somos, which is also the forebear of Sanskrit samah ("even, the same"), Lithuanian similis ("like"), Gothic sama ("the same") and samana ("together"). You can probably guess from the forms and definitions that *somos is connected with our Modern English word same. The suffix -graph is also a Greek borrowing and is used to express a passive sense of "writing".

It's interesting that this word came up today because recently Mr. B and I were discussing the word desert and he suggested I write about it in the blog. In some of his reading for class he came upon this word, used to convey "suitable reward or punishment" (as in his just deserts). His main concern was about pronunciation, but sorting out pronunciations is just the tip of the iceberg with these homographs.

There are four entries in the Oxford English Dictionary for desert. Here they are, simplified for the sake of clarity:
/dɪˈz3ːt/ , noun;
1. Deserving; worthiness of recompense, merit or demerit
2. An action or quality that deserves recompense
Pronounced \di-ZERT\, this form dates to the late 1200's and comes from Old French deservir, which is related to Modern English deserve

/dɪˈz3ːt/ , verb;
1. To abandon a thing, place, position, institution
2. To forsake one's duty, post or party; especially of a soldier or sailor
Also pronounced \di-ZERT\, this form dates to the mid-1500's and comes from Modern French déserter ("to abandon"), which meant "to make desert, leave desert" in Old French.

/ˈdɛzət/ , noun;
1. An uninhabited and uncultivated tract of country; a wilderness
Pronunced \DE-zert\, this form may be as old as 1225 and it definitely dates to the early 1300's. It comes from Old French desert, which derives from ecclesiastical Latin dēsertus, the past participle of dēserĕre ("to sever connection with, leave, forsake, abandon, etc.")

/ˈdɛzət/ , adjective;
1. Uninhabited, desolate, lonely; like a desert
Also pronunced \DE-zert\, this form dates to the late 1200's and comes from Middle English de 'sert, which derives from Old French desert and follows the same etymology as it's homophone above.

This is why people study linguistics: how amazing is it to find such complexities lying just below the surface? Here we have one written form, two pronunciations, four definitions, and three etymologies. It doesn't get any better than this!

Today's word and the first definition were both taken from's 'Word of the Day' for Sunday, January 23
Etymologies come from the Oxford English Dictionary and/or

No comments:

Post a Comment