I introduced my 6-year-old to the concept of "homonyms" (though I've probably got it conflated with homophones or vice-versa). Since then he's been trying to find homonyms.

He asked me just now: "Can names be homonyms? Like 'Cole' and 'coal'?"

My hypothesis is that the answer is probably "yes", but can someone answer me definitively: can nouns & same-sounding proper nouns be considered homonyms (as in the above example)?

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    Yes. Certainly they're homophones. (phone means 'sound', so homophones have the same sound, regardless of spelling, like bear (n), bare (adj), and bear (v)). Nym means 'word', so whether it's sposta be spelling or sound is not clear. Notice that the sound came before the spelling, and keeps changing, while the spelling got frozen 500 years ago when they were speaking a different language in England (and nobody was speaking it anywhere else). – John Lawler Jun 6 '14 at 20:11
  • If you and your son speak American English, this may be useful for discussing sounds. – John Lawler Jun 6 '14 at 20:14
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    The homonym etc terms are really only useful for explaining what might otherwise be confusing. They're usually just describing coincidences, rather like 'orchestra' and 'carthorse' being labelled anagrams. And sadly, there isn't universal agreement on the precise definition of homonym. – Edwin Ashworth Jun 6 '14 at 20:51
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    Not until there is universal agreement on the precise definition of word. Matthews suggests that there are three quite distinct common meanings for word in English. Diagram here. – John Lawler Jun 6 '14 at 21:37
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    @JohnLawler: Nobody will be able to provide a better answer than your comments, so this question is bound to remain stuck in the Unanswered list. Could you please put your comments in an answer? – feetwet Jun 12 '14 at 3:54

Proper nouns can be homonyms, just like any other words.

But what is a homonym? According to Merriam-Webster, the primary meaning of homonym is a word that is spelled and pronounced like another word but is different in meaning; the term can also refer to the related concepts of homophones (words that sound the same but differ in meaning or spelling) or homographs (words that are spelled the same but differ in pronunciation or meaning).

Clearly, this definition of homonym can be applied to proper nouns. Because proper nouns (including personal names like Cole and place names like London) are still real words, they may also be homonyms. For instance, this article lists Greece and grease as homonyms, even though Greece is most certainly a proper noun. (NB: the definition of homonym does not require a specific part of speech, but merely requires a word.)

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