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Words like bank, bat, bear, fine, fair, number, row, etc., each have multiple meanings but are pronounced and spelled in the same way. How can one word mean different things?

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Number is not a homonym, but it is a homograph. Row is both a homonym and a homograph. All the rest are homonyms, but not homographs. Bear, fair and row are all homophones as well as homonyms. Confused yet? Homophones are words which are pronounced the same but spelled differently - like bear and bare; homographs are pronounced differently - like number (pronounced "b") and number (silent "b"); homonyms are spelled and pronounced the same, but the meanings are different - like row (as opposed to "column") and row (as in rowing a boat). –  Daniel Sep 28 '11 at 17:58
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@drɱ65δ I think homonym is the general term for same-name, and the specific subtypes are 'homophone' for same-pronunciation and 'homograph' for same-spelling. –  nohat Sep 28 '11 at 18:04
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The obvious main two ways are "heteroradical" (having different origins), such as skate:glide on ice and skate:type of fish, and "polysemous". In "polysemy", the possible meanings of a single word diverge so much we tend to think of the different senses as different words - such as a bank check (or cheque), and check in chess. –  FumbleFingers Sep 28 '11 at 18:09
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The short answer to why one word has to mean different things is because otherwise we'd need nearly 7 billion different words just to uniquely identify all the actual people on the planet. And then there's all the dead people, zillions of beetles, and quite a few other things we'd need words for... –  FumbleFingers Sep 28 '11 at 18:12
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Or (beloved of cryptic crossword compilers) number as anesthetic. –  FumbleFingers Sep 28 '11 at 18:55
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1 Answer

According to Steven Pinker, in The Stuff of Thought:

Homonymy usually arises when an ancestral word budded off new senses in a language's history and current speakers retain no inkling of the original connection. For instance, the word odd originally referred to something that stuck out, like the point of a triangle. Then it was extended to refer to something that metaphorically stuck out because it was unusual, and then was extended further to refer to a number that had one unit sticking out from a pair.

Homophony, on the other hand, is defined as a phenomenon

in which distinct words are pronounced the same way, usually because their original pronunciations got merged in the history of the language. For example, four and fore sound alike today, but four originally rhymed with tour, and fore originally rhymed (more or less) with flora; we see fossils of the old pronunciations in the way the words are spelled.

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I think that's Pinker choosing to treat homonymy and homophony as mutually exclusive categories in his particular context. In practice, homonymy is often used as the 'generic' word for several different phenomena. –  FumbleFingers Sep 28 '11 at 19:01
    
Which is too bad, since now when we try to describe words that are spelled and pronounced the same as each other, but with different meanings, we must use a word which can also mean homophone or homograph. –  Daniel Sep 28 '11 at 19:11
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