A homonym is a word with two distinct meanings, for instance:

chase (from dict.org)

  1. To pursue for the purpose of killing or taking, as an enemy, or game; to hunt. [1913 Webster]

  2. To cut, so as to make a screw thread. [1913 Webster]

Does homonym apply to terms (esp. colloquial) or phrases as well?

For instance, wife beater refers to either a type of shirt or a person who physically abuses their wife.

Is there a word or term that describes this type of word or phrase?

  • So "bear" as in "to bear fruit" and "bear" as in "large furry animal" are the same word, with different meanings? I consider those to be two different words, with the same sounds. Commented Nov 17, 2011 at 17:34

3 Answers 3


It does feel strange to apply the term 'homonym' to a multi-word phrase. There is no special word that is an alternative to 'homonym' that is specific to terms of more than one word. That is, there is no such word 'X' to say 'The phrase "wife beater" is an X'.

However, one can describe the -situation- as polysemy or amphiboly (and their derived forms). For example,

The term 'wife beater' is polysemous; it can have its literal meaning, or by metonymy, it can refer to a style of t-shirt.

  • I think that amphiboly is the more accurate term, at least going by the WordNet definition. Also, I believe that should be "refer to an A-style shirt" or simply "an A-shirt" Wikipedia. Commented Nov 17, 2011 at 14:25
  • @Wayne: I meant "style of a t-short"...fixed. As to amphiboly. I think of that as more of a rhetorical strategy of using the ambiguity of a word for (disingenuous) argument, rather than the multiplicity of meaning itself.
    – Mitch
    Commented Nov 17, 2011 at 14:54
  • well technically speaking a T-shirt is of the sleeved variety. I think you're right about the amphiboly, especially in this context. I doubt you'd hear someone say "He's wearing a wife beater," and mean anything besides the shirt. Commented Nov 17, 2011 at 22:01

Chase is a homonym because there are two different words here, with different origins. That's why you'd be unlikely to guess the second meaning just by knowing the first one.

The expression wife beater is not a homonym, partly because it's two words, and partly because the "shirt" meaning is simply an idiomatic usage involving the same two existing words as the literal meaning. Again, you'd be unlikely to guess the second meaning from the first, but that's because it's an idiom.

In principle, any expression or word that has many meanings could be called a polyseme, but that's a rare word itself (my link is to a Dictionary of Difficult Words), so you'd probably get some funny looks if you said "wife beater" was a polyseme.


British people will think of the Two Ronnies Four Candles / Fork Handles sketch

There's also a dubious neologism. Oronym

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