I am looking for the technical term for a specific kind of speech/writing error which is the bad intersection of homonyms, synonyms, and words with meaning which are related in one context but not another. There are 2 variations of this error: one which occurs more often within the same language, and one which occurs more often as an error of computer translation between 2 languages. The error is this: the use of a synonym for the wrong definition/homonym of a word. The first occurs often in cases of names of products or TV shows - cases where words lack their standard meaning/context, and are simply terms which the speaker may not have an association with in that context. This is almost ALWAYS done by people unfamiliar with the topic. Examples would be (these are the "related in one context but not another" variation):

Someone asking about "that play The Ghost of The Ballet" (The Phantom of the Opera)

"Asteroid cleaner" (comet)

"that song - what's it called? Kathrine Hepburn" (the song is called Grace Kelly)

Or the computer translation error version (the homonym/synonym fail): "In crime of fire, steal the walk" (in case[>court case>crime] of fire, take [>steal] the stairs [>steps>walk])

"Metal the way" (lead[metal]/lead[leadership] the way)

"Too much practice, you may wheel" (If you get too much exercise[>school exercises>practice] you will tire[sleepy]/tire[wheel])

Different homonyms in different languages mean that repeated translation in and out of various languages will eventually yield results so mangled you can't tell what they were ever supposed to say. The error I'm searching for the name of is the reason computer translation doesn't work. I suppose the best way I can describe it would be "contextless homonym/synonym fail".

  • Related: eggcorn
    – Josh
    Commented Nov 2, 2015 at 20:35
  • These are all associational hypotheses that turned out to be false. Pretty normal behavior; we don't notice the ones that turn out to be true. We just think of ourselves as having good memories. In fact, it's all associational, all the way down, but you need a lot of parallel associations to zero in on one answer. Commented Nov 2, 2015 at 20:45
  • @JohnLawler- Are referring to this association? en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ancient_and_Honorable_Order_of_Turtles
    – Jim
    Commented Nov 2, 2015 at 20:52

1 Answer 1


Regarding the blunders we often find in machine translation, let me offer polysemy error.

polysemy: multiplicity of meaning

(Webster's Unabridged)

When a computer encounters a polysemant, it often fails to choose the correct meaning in context, which results in a polysemy error that we often find humorous.

By the same token, you could use homonymy errors, when the mixed-up words are homonyms or homographs.

  • That's a start, for sure, but I was hoping to find a pre-existing term for this. In the case that one does not already exist but needs to be established, I quite like "homonymy errors" as a candidate.
    – peetey897
    Commented Nov 2, 2015 at 21:02
  • 1
    @peetey897 I wish I could help more, but let me add that this paper on CAT uses "polysemy errors" as a term, evidently.
    – A.P.
    Commented Nov 3, 2015 at 8:01

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