ТОП 10:


Set expressions have their own specific features, which enhance their stability and cohesion. These are their euphonic, imaginative and connotative qualities. It has been often pointed out that many set expressions are distinctly rhythmical, contain alliteration, rhyme, imagery, contrast, are based on puns, etc. These features have always been treated from the point of view of style and expressiveness. Their cementing function is perhaps no less important. All these qualities ensure the strongest possible contact between the elements, give them their peculiar muscular feel, so that in pronouncing something like stuff and nonsense the speaker can enjoy some release of pent-up nervous tension. Consider the following sentence: Tommy would come back to her safe and sound (O'Flaherty). Safe and sound is somehow more reassuring than the synonymous word uninjured, which could have been used.

These euphonic and connotative qualities also prevent substitution for another purely linguistic, though not semantic, reason — any substitution would destroy the euphonic effect. Consider, for instance, the result of synonymic substitution in the above alliterative pair safe and sound. Secure and uninjured has the same denotational meaning but sounds so dull and trivial that the phrase may be considered destroyed and one is justified in saying that safe and sound admits no substitution.

Rhythmic qualities are characteristic of almost all set expressions. They are especially marked in such pairs as far and wide, far and near ‘many places both near and distant’; by fits and starts ‘irregularly’; heart and soul ‘with complete devotion to a cause’. Rhythm is combined with reiteration in the following well-known phrases: more and more, on and on, one by one, through and through. Alliteration occurs in many cases: part and parcel ‘an essential and necessary part’; with might and main ‘with all one’s powers’; rack and ruin ‘a state of neglect and collapse’; then and there ‘at once and on the spot’; from pillar to post’, in for a penny, in for a pound’, head over heels; without rhyme or reason’, pick of the pops’, a bee in one’s bonnet’, the why and wherefore. It is interesting to note that alliterative phrases often contain obsolete elements, not used elsewhere. In the above expressions these are main, an obsolete synonym to might, and rack, probably a variant of wreck.

12 И. B. Apнольд 177

As one of the elements becomes obsolete and falls out of the language, demotivation may set in, and this, paradoxical though it may seem, also tends to increase the stability and constancy of a set expression. The process is complicated, because the preservation of obsolete elements in set expressions is in its turn assisted by all the features mentioned above. Some more examples of set expressions containing obsolete elements are: hue and cry ‘a loud clamour about something’ (a synonymic pair with the obsolete word hue); leave in the lurch ‘to leave in a helpless position’ (with the obsolete noun lurch meaning ‘ambush’); not a whit ‘not at all’ (with the obsolete word whit — a variant of wight ‘creature’, ‘thing’ —not used outside this expression and meaning ‘the smallest thing imaginable’).

Rhyme is also characteristic of set expressions: fair and square ‘honest’; by hook or by crook ‘by any method, right or wrong’ (its elements are not only rhymed but synonymous). Out and about ‘able to go out’ is used about a convalescent person. High and dry was originally used about ships, meaning ‘out of the water’, ‘aground’; at present it is mostly used figuratively in several metaphorical meanings: ‘isolated’, ‘left without help’, ‘out of date’. This capacity of developing an integer (undivided) transferred meaning is one more feature that makes set expressions similar to words.

Semantic stylistic features contracting set expressions into units of fixed context are simile, contrast, metaphor and synonymy. For example: as like as two peas, as old as the hills and older than the hills (simile); from beginning to end, for love or money, more or less, sooner or later (contrast); a lame duck, a pack of lies, arms race, to swallow the pill, in a nutshell (metaphor); by leaps and bounds, proud and haughty (synonymy). A few more combinations of different features in the same phrase are: as good as gold, as pleased as Punch, as fit as a fiddle (alliteration, simile); now or never, to kill or cure (alliteration and contrast). More rarely there is an intentional pun: as cross as two sticks means ‘very angry’. This play upon words makes the phrase jocular. The comic effect is created by the absurdity of the combination making use of two different meanings of the word cross a and n.

To a linguistically conscious mind most set expressions tend to keep their history. It remains in them as an intricate force, and the awareness of their history can yield rewarding pleasure in using or hearing them. Very many examples of metaphors connected with the sea can be quoted: be on the rocks, rest on the oars, sail close to the wind, smooth sailing, weather the storm. Those connected with agriculture are no less expressive and therefore easily remembered: plough the sand, plough a lonely furrow, reap a rich harvest, thrash (a subject) out.

For all practical purposes the boundary between set expressions and free phrases is vague. The point that is to be kept in mind is that there are also some structural features of a set expression correlated with its invariability.

There are, of course, other cases when set expressions lose their metaphorical picturesqueness, having preserved some fossilised words and

phrases, the meaning of which is no longer correctly understood. For instance, the expression buy a pig in a poke may be still used, although poke ‘bag’ (cf . pouch, pocket) does not occur in other contexts. Expressions taken from obsolete sports and occupations may survive in their new figurative meaning. In these cases the euphonic qualities of the expression are even more important. A muscular and irreducible phrase is also memorable. The muscular feeling is of special importance in slogans and battle cries. Saint George and the Dragon for Merrie England, the medieval battle cry, was a rhythmic unit to which a man on a horse could swing his sword. The modern Scholarships not battleships] can be conveniently scanned by a marching crowd.

To sum up, the memorableness of a set expression, as well as its unity, is assisted by various factors within the expression such as rhythm, rhyme, alliteration, imagery and even the muscular feeling one gets> when pronouncing them.


The place of proverbs, sayings and familiar quotations with respect to set expressions is a controversial issue. A proverb is a short familiar epigrammatic saying expressing popular wisdom, a truth or a moral lesson in a concise and imaginative way. Proverbs have much in common with set expressions, because their lexical components are also constant, their meaning is traditional and mostly figurative, and they are introduced into speech ready-made. That is why some scholars following V.V. Vinogradov think proverbs must be studied together with phraseological units. Others like J. Casares and N.N. Amosova think that unless they regularly form parts of other sentences it is erroneous to include them into the system of language, because they are independent units of communication. N.N. Amosova even thinks that there is no more reason to consider them as part of phraseology than, for instance, riddles and children’s counts. This standpoint is hardly acceptable especially if we do not agree with the narrow limits of phraseology offered by this author. Riddles and counts are not as a rule included into utterances in the process of communication, whereas proverbs are. Whether they are included into an utterance as independent sentences or as part of sentences is immaterial. If we follow that line of reasoning, we shall have to exclude all interjections such as Hang it (all)! because they are also syntactically independent. As to the argument that in many proverbs the meaning of component parts does not show any specific changes when compared to the meaning of the same words in free combinations, it must be pointed out that in this respect they do not differ from very many set expressions, especially those which are emotionally neutral.

Another reason why proverbs must be taken into consideration together with set expressions is that they often form the basis of set expressions. E. g. the last straw breaks the camel’s back : : the last straw; a drowning man will clutch at a straw : : clutch at a straw; it is useless to lock the stable door when the steed is stolen : : lock the stable door ‘to take precautions when the accident they are meant to prevent has already happened’.

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Both set expressions and proverbs are sometimes split and changed for humorous purposes, as in the following quotation where the proverb All is not gold that glitters combines with an allusion to the set expression golden age, e . g . It will be an age not perhaps of gold, but at least of glitter. Compare also the following, somewhat daring compliment meant to shock the sense of bourgeois propriety: But I laughed and said, “Don’t you worry, Professor, I'm not pulling her ladyship’s leg. I wouldn’t do such a thing. I have too much respect for that charming limb.” (Cary) Sometimes the speaker notices the lack of logic in a set expression and checks himself, as in the following: Holy terror, she is least not so holy, I suppose, but a terror all right (Rattigan).

Taking a familiar group of words: A living dog is better than a dead lion (from the Bible) and turning it around, a fellow critic once said that Hazlitt was unable to appreciate a writer till he was dead — that Hazlitt thought a dead ass better than a living lion. A. Huxley is very fond of stylistic, mostly grotesque, effects achieved in this way. So, for example, paraphrasing the set expression marry into money he says about one of his characters, who prided herself on her conversation, that she had married into conversation.

Lexicology does not deal more fully with the peculiarities of proverbs: created in folklore, they are studied by folklorists, but in treating units introduced into the act of communication ready-made we cannot avoid touching upon them too.

As to familiar quotations, they are different from proverbs in their origin. They come from literature but by and by they become part and parcel of the language, so that many people using them do not even know that they are quoting, and very few could acccurately name the play or passage on which they are drawing even when they are aware of using a quotation from W. Shakespeare.

The Shakespearian quotations have become and remain extremely numerous — they have contributed enormously to the store of the language. Some of the most often used are: I know a trick worth two of that; A man more sinned against than sinning ("King Lear"); Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown ("Henry IV"). Very many come from “Hamlet", for example: Frailty, thy name is woman’, Give every man thy ear, but few thy voice’, Something is rotten in the state of Denmark; Brevity is the soul of wit; The rest is silence; Thus conscience does make cowards of us all; There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, I Than are dreamt of in your philosophy; It out-herods Herod; For to the noble mind / Rich gifts wax poor when givers prove unkind.

Excepting only W. Shakespeare, no poet has given more of his lines than A. Pope to the common vocabulary of the English-speaking world. The following are only a few of the best known quotations: A little learning is a dangerous thing; To err is human; To forgive, divine; For fools rush in where angels fear to tread; At every word a reputation dies; Who shall decide when doctors disagree?

Quotations from classical sources were once a recognised feature of

public speech: de te fabula narratur (Horace) ‘the story is about you’; ternpora mutantur, et nos mutamur in illis ‘times change, and we change with them’; timeo Danaoset dona ferentes (Virgil) ‘I fear the Greeks, even when bringing gifts’. Now they are even regarded as bad form, because they are unintelligible to those without a classical education. So, when a speaker ventures a quotation of that kind he hastens to translate it. A number of classical tags nevertheless survive in educated speech in many countries, in Russian no less than in English. There are the well-known phrases, such as ad hoc ‘for this special reason’; bona fide ‘in good faith’; cum grano salts ‘with a grain of salt’; mutatis mutandis ‘with necessary changes’; tabula rasa ‘a blank tablet’ and others of the same kind. As long as they keep their Latin form they do not belong to English vocabulary. Many of them, however, show various degrees of assimilation, e.g. viva voce ['vaiva ‘vousi] ‘oral examination’, which may be used as an adjective, an adverb and a verb. Viva voce examination is colloquially shortened into viva (noun and verb).

Some quotations are so often used that they come to be considered clichés. The term comes from the printing trade. The cliché (the word is French) is a metal block used for printing pictures and turning them out in great numbers. The term is used to denote such phrases as have become hackneyed and stale. Being constantly and mechanically repeated they have lost their original expressiveness and so are better avoided. H.W. Fowler in a burst of eloquence in denouncing them even exclaims: “How many a time has Galileo longed to recant his recantation, as e pur si muove was once more applied or misapplied!"1 Opinions may vary on what is tolerable and what sounds an offence to most of the listeners or readers, as everyone may have his own likes and dislikes. The following are perhaps the most generally recognised: the acid test, ample opportunities, astronomical figures, the arms of Morpheus, to break the ice, consigned to oblivion, the irony of fate, to sleep the sleep of the just, stand shoulder to shoulder, swan song, toe the line, tender mercies, etc. Empty and worn-out but pompous phrases often become mere verbiage used as a poor compensation for a lack of thought or precision. Here are some phrases occurring in passages of literary criticism and justly branded as clichés: to blaze a trail, consummate art, consummate skill, heights of tragedy, lofty flight of imagination. The so-called journalese has its own set of overworked phrases: to usher in a new age, to prove a boon to mankind, to pave the way to a bright new world, to spell the doom of civilisation, etc.

In giving this review of English set expressions we have paid special attention to the fact that the subject is a highly complex one and that it has been treated by different scholars in very different ways. Each approach and each classification have their advantages and their drawbacks. The choice one makes depends on the particular problem one has in view, and even so there remains much to be studied in the future.

1 E pur si muove (It) ‘yet it does move’ — the words attributed to Galileo Galilei. He is believed to have said them after being forced to recant his doctrine that the Earth moves round the Sun.

Part Two

Chapter 10


In a simple code each sign has only one meaning, and each meaning is associated with only one sign. This one-to-one relationship is not realised in natural languages. When several related meanings are associated with the same group of sounds within one part of speech, the word is called polysemantic, when two or more unrelated meanings are associated with the same form — the words are homonyms, when two or more different forms are associated with the same or nearly the same denotative meanings — the words are synonyms.

Actually, if we describe the lexical system according to three distinctive features, each of which may be present or absent, we obtain 23 = 8 possible combinations. To represent these the usual tables with only horizontal and vertical subdivisions are inadequate, so we make use of a mapping technique developed for simplifying logical truth functions by E.W. Veitch that proved very helpful in our semantic studies.

In the table below a small section of the lexico-semantic system of the language connected with the noun sound (as in sound of laughter) is represented as a set of oppositions involving phonetical form, similar lexical meaning and grammatical part-of-speech meaning. Every pair of words is contrasted according to sameness or difference in three distinctive features at once.

A maximum similarity is represented by square 1 containing the lexico-semantic variants of the same word. All the adjoining squares differ in one feature only. Thus squares 1 and 2 differ in part of speech meaning only. Some dictionaries as, for instance “Thorndike Century Junior Dictionary” even place sound1 and sounds3 in one entry. On the other hand, we see that squares 2,3 and 4 represent what we shall call different types of homonymy. Square 7 presents words completely dissimilar according to the distinctive features chosen. Square 5 is a combination of features characteristic not only of synonyms but of other types of semantic similarity that will be discussed later on. But first we shall concentrate on homonyms, i.e. words characterised by phonetic coincidence and semantic differentiation.

Two or more words identical in sound and spelling but different in meaning, distribution and (in many cases) origin are called homonyms. The term is derived from Greek homonymous (homos ‘the same'

Table 1







SIMILAR SOUND FORM 1. Polysemy 2. Patterned Homonymy 3. Partial Homonymy .4. Full Homonymy
sound2 n : : sound2 n sound2 as in : a vowel sound sound1 n : : sounds3 sounds as in: to sound a trumpet sound1 n : : sound4 a sound4 as in: sound argument sound1 n: : sound5 n sound5 as in: Long Island Sound
DIFFERENT SOUND FORM 5. Synonymy and Hyponymy 6. Word-Family 7. Any English Words 8. Words of the Same Part of Speech
sound1: : noise sound1:: whistle sound1 n soundless a soundproof a sound3 v sound n simple a sound n simplicity n

and onoma ‘name’) and thus expresses very well the sameness of name combined with the difference in meaning.

There is an obvious difference between the meanings of the symbol fast in such combinations as run fast ‘quickly’ and stand fast ‘firmly’. The difference is even more pronounced if we observe cases where fast is a noun or a verb as in the following proverbs: A clean fast is better than a dirty breakfast; Who feasts till he is sick, must fast till he is well. Fast as an isolated word, therefore, may be regarded as a variable that can assume several different values depending on the conditions of usage, or, in other words, distribution. All the possible values of each linguistic sign are listed in dictionaries. It is the duty of lexicographers to define the boundaries of each word, i.e. to differentiate homonyms and to unite variants deciding in each case whether the different meanings belong to the same polysemantic word or whether there are grounds to treat them as two or more separate words identical in form. In speech, however, as a rule only one of all the possible values is determined by the context, so that no ambiguity may normally arise. There is no danger, for instance, that the listener would wish to substitute the meaning

'quick’ into the sentence: It is absurd to have hard and fast rules about anything (Wilde), or think that fast rules here are ‘rules of diet’. Combinations when two or more meanings are possible are either deliberate puns, or result from carelessness. Both meanings of liver, i.e. ‘a living person’ and ‘the organ that secretes bile’ are, for instance, intentionally present in the following play upon words: “Is life worth living?” “It depends upon the liver.” Сf.: “What do you do with the fruit?” “We eat what we can, and what we can’t eat we can.”

Very seldom can ambiguity of this kind interfere with understanding. The following example is unambiguous, although the words back and part have several homonyms, and maid and heart are polysemantic:

Maid of Athens, ere we part,

Give, oh give me back my heart (Byron).

Homonymy exists in many languages, but in English it is particularly frequent, especially among monosyllabic words. In the list of 2540 homonyms given in the “Oxford English Dictionary” 89% are monosyllabic words and only 9.1 % are words of two syllables. From the viewpoint of their morphological structure, they are mostly one-morpheme words.

Classification of Homonyms.The most widely accepted classification is that recognising homonyms proper, homophones and homographs. Homonyms proper are words identical in pronunciation and spelling, like fast and liver above. Other examples are: back n ‘part of the body’ : : back adv ‘away from the front’ : : back v ‘go back’; ball n ‘a round object used in games’ : : ball n ‘a gathering of people for dancing’; bark n ‘the noise made by a dog’ : : bark v ‘to utter sharp explosive cries’ : : bark n ‘the skin of a tree’ : : bark n ‘a sailing ship’; base n ‘bottom’ : : base v ‘build or place upon’ : : base a ‘mean’; bay n ‘part of the sea or lake filling wide-mouth opening of land’ : : bay n ‘recess in a house or a room’ : : bay v ‘bark’ : : bay n ‘the European laurel’. The important point is that homonyms are distinct words: not different meanings within one word.

Homophones are words of the same sound but of different spelling and meaning: air : : heir; arms : : alms; buy : : by; him : : hymn; knight : : night; not: : knot; or: : oar; piece : : peace; rain: : reign; scent: : cent; steel : : steal; storey : : story; write : : right and many others.

In the sentence The play-wright on my right thinks it right that some conventional rite should symbolise the right of every man to write as he pleases the sound complex [rait] is a noun, an adjective, an adverb and a verb, has four different spellings and six different meanings. The difference may be confined to the use of a capital letter as in bill and Bill, in the following example: “How much is my milk bill?11 “Excuse me, Madam, but my name is John.11 On the other hand, whole sentences may be homophonic: The sons raise meat : : The sun’s rays meet. To understand these one needs a wider context. If you hear the second in the course of a lecture in optics, you will understand it without thinking of the possibility of the first.

Homographs аrе words different in sound and in meaning but accidentally identical in spelling: bow [bou] : : bow [bau]; lead [li:d] : : lead [led]; row [rou] : : row [rau]; sewer [’souэ] : : sewer [sjuэ]; tear [tiэ] : : tear [tea]; wind [wind] : : wind [waind] and many more.

It has been often argued that homographs constitute a phenomenon that should be kept apart from homonymy as the object of linguistics is sound language. This viewpoint can hardly be accepted. Because of the effects of education and culture written English is a generalised national form of expression. An average speaker does not separate the written and oral form. On the contrary he is more likely to analyse the words in terms of letters than in terms of phonemes with which he is less familiar. That is why a linguist must take into consideration both the spelling and the pronunciation of words when analysing cases of identity of form and diversity of content.

Various types of classification for homonyms proper have been suggested.

A comprehensive system may be worked out if we are guided by the theory of oppositions and in classifying the homonyms take into consideration the difference or sameness in their lexical and grammatical meaning, paradigm and basic form. For the sake of completeness we shall consider this problem in terms of the same mapping technique used for the elements of vocabulary system connected with the word sound.

As both form and meaning can be further subdivided, the combination of distinctive features by which two words are compared becomes more complicated — there are four features: the form may be phonetical and graphical, the meaning — lexical and grammatical, a word may also have a paradigm of grammatical forms different from the basic form.

The distinctive features shown in the table on p. 186 are lexical meaning (different denoted by A, or nearly the same denoted by A), grammatical meaning (different denoted by B, or same by B), paradigm (different denoted by C, or same denoted by C), and basic form (different D and same D).

The term “nearly same lexical meaning” must not be taken too literally. It means only that the corresponding members of the opposition have some important invariant semantic components in common. “Same grammatical meaning” implies that both members belong to the same part of speech.

Same paradigm comprises also cases when there is only one word form, i.e. when the words are unchangeable. Inconsistent combinations of features are crossed out in the table. It is, for instance, impossible for two words to be identical in all word forms and different in basic forms, or for two homonyms to show no difference either in lexical or grammatical meaning, because in this case they are not homonyms. That leaves twelve possible classes.


Table II







Difference and Identity in Words
A Different lexical meaning A Nearly same lexical meaning
В Different grammatical meaning Partial Homonymy Patterned Homonymy D Same basic form
light, -s n light, -er, -est a flat, -s n flat, -er, -est a for prp for cj before prp before adv before cj eye, -s n eye, -s,-ed, -ing v
might n maymight v     thought n thought v (Past Indefinite Tense of think) D Different basic form
В Same grammatical meaning axis, axes n axe axes n batbutted v buttbutted v     Synonyms
lielaylain V lie lied lied v Full Homonymy spring, -s n spring, -s n spring, -s n Polysemy Variants of the same polysemantic word D Same basic form
  С Different paradigm С Same paradigm or no changes С Different paradigm  

The 12 classes are:

ABCD.Members of the opposition light n ‘the contrary of darkness’ : : light a ‘not heavy’ are different in lexical and grammatical meaning, have different paradigms but the same basic form. The class of partial homonymy is very numerous. A further subdivision might take into consideration the parts of speech to which the members belong, namely the oppositions of noun : : verb, adjective : : verb, n : : adjective, etc.

ABCD.Same as above, only not both members are in their basic form. The noun (here might ‘power’) is in its basic form, the singular, but the verb may will coincide with it only in the Past Tense. This lack of coincidence between basic forms is not frequent, so only few examples are possible. Compare also bit n ‘a small piece’ and bit (the Past Indefinite Tense and Participle II of bite).

ABCD.Contains pairs of words belonging to the same part of speech, different in their basic form but coinciding in some oblique form, e. g. in the plural, or in the case of verbs, in the Past Tense. Axe axes, axis axes. The type is rare.

ABCD.Different lexical meaning, same basic form, same grammatical meaning and different paradigm: lie lay lain and lie lied lied. Not many cases belong to this group.

ABCD.Represents pairs different in lexical and grammatical meaning but not in paradigm, as these are not changeable form words. Examples: for prp contrasted to for cj.

ABCD.The most typical case of full homonymy accepted by everybody and exemplified in every textbook. Different lexical meanings, but the homonyms belong to the same part of speech: spring1 n ‘a leap’ :: spring2 ‘a source’ :: spring3 n ‘the season in which vegetation begins’.

ABCD.Patterned homonymy. Differs from the previous (i.e. ABCD) in the presence of some common component in the lexical meaning of the members, some lexical invariant: before prp, before adv, before cj, all express some priority in succession. This type of opposition is regular among form words. .

ABCD.Pairs showing maximum identity. But as their lexical meaning is only approximately the same, they may be identified as variants of one polysemantic word.

ABCD.Contains all the cases due to conversion: eye n : : eye v. The members differ in grammatical meaning and paradigm. This group is typical of patterned homonymy. Examples of such noun-to-verb or verb-to-noun homonymy can be augmented almost indefinitely. The mean-ing of the second element can always be guessed if the first is known.

ABCD.Pairs belonging to different parts of speech and coinciding in some of the forms. Their similarity is due to a common root, as in thought n : thought v (the Past Indefinite Tense of think).

ABCD.Similarity in both lexical and grammatical meaning combined with difference in form is characteristic of synonyms and hyponyms.

ABCD.The group is not numerous and comprises chiefly cases of double plural with a slight change in meaning such as brother brothers : : brother brethren.

It goes without saying that this is a model that gives a general scheme. Actually a group of homonyms may contain members belonging to different groups in this classification. Take, for example, fell1 n ‘animal’s hide or skin with the hair’; fell2 n ‘hill’ and also ‘a stretch of North-English moorland’; fell3 a ‘fierce’ (poet.); fell4 v ‘to cut down

trees’ and as a noun ‘amount of timber cut’; fell5 (the Past Indefinite Tense of the verb fall). This group may be broken into pairs, each of which will fit into one of the above described divisions. Thus, fell1 : : fell2 may be characterised as ABCD, fell1 : : fell4 as ABCD and fell4 : : fell5 as ABCD.


The intense development of homonymy in the English language is obviously due not to one single factor but to several interrelated causes, such as the monosyllabic character of English and its analytic structure.

The abundance of homonyms is also closely connected with such a characteristic feature of the English language as the phonetic identity of word and stem or, in other words, the predominance of free forms among the most frequent roots. It is quite obvious that if the frequency of words stands in some inverse relationship to their length, the monosyllabic words will be the most frequent. Moreover, as the most frequent words are also highly polysemantic, it is only natural that they develop meanings which in the course of time may deviate very far from the central one. When the intermediate links fall out, some of these new meanings lose all connections with the rest of the structure and start a separate existence. The phenomenon is known as disintegration or split of polysemy.

Different causes by which homonymy may be brought about are subdivided into two main groups:

1) homonymy through convergent sound development, when two or three words of different origin accidentally coincide in sound; and

2) homonymy developed from polysemy through divergent sense development. Both may be combined with loss of endings and other morphological processes.

In Old English the words zesund ‘healthy’ and sund ‘swimming’ were separate words both in form and in meaning. In the course of time they have changed their meaning and phonetic form, and the latter accidentally coincided: OE sund>ModE sound ‘strait’; OE зesund>ModE sound ‘healthy’. The group was joined also accidentally by the noun sound ‘what is or may be heard’ with the corresponding verb that developed from French and ultimately from the Latin word sonus, and the verb sound ‘to measure the depth’ of dubious etymology. The coincidence is purely accidental.

Two different Latin verbs: cadere ‘to fall’ and capere ‘to hold’ are the respective sources of the homonyms case1 ‘instance of thing’s occurring’ and case2 ‘a box’. Indeed, case1<OFr cas < Lat casus ‘fall’, and case2<OldNorthern French casse<Lat capsa. Homonymy of this type is universally recognised. The other type is open to discussion. V.I. Abayev accepts as homonymy only instances of etymologically different words. Everything else in his opinion is polysemy. Many other scholars do not agree with V.I. Abayev and insist on the semantic and structural criteria for distinguishing homonymy from polysemy.

Unlike the homonyms case and sound all the homonyms of the box group due to disintegration or split of polysemy are etymologically connected. The sameness of form is not accidental but based on genetic relationship. They are all derived from one another and are all ultimately traced to the Latin buxus. “The Concise Oxford Dictionary” has five entries for box: box1 n ‘a kind of small evergreen shrub’; box2 n ‘receptacle made of wood, cardboard, metal, etc. and usually provided with a lid’; box3 v ‘to put into a box’; box4 n ‘slap with the hand on the ear’; box5 v — a sport term meaning ‘to fight with fists in padded gloves’.

Such homonyms may be partly derived from one another but their common point of origin lies beyond the limits of the English language. In these words with the appearance of a new meaning, very different from the previous one, the semantic structure of the parent word splits. The new meaning receives a separate existence and starts a new semantic structure of its own. Hence the term disintegration or split of polysemy.

It must be noted, however, that though the number of examples in which a process of this sort could be observed is considerable, it is difficult to establish exact criteria by which disintegration of polysemy could be detected. The whole concept is based on stating whether there is any connection between the meanings or not.1 Whereas in the examples dealing with phonetic convergence, i.e. when we said that case1 and case2 are different words because they differ in origin, we had definite linguistic criteria to go by; in the case of disintegration of polysemy there are none to guide us, we can only rely on intuition and individual linguistic experience. For a trained linguist the number of unrelated homonyms will be much smaller than for an uneducated person. The knowledge of etymology and cognate languages will always help to supply the missing links. It is easier, for instance, to see the connection between beam ‘a ray of light’ and beam ‘the metallic structural part of a building’ if one knows the original meaning of the word, i.e. ‘tree’ (OE beam||Germ Baum), and is used to observe similar metaphoric transfers in other words. The connection is also more obvious if one is able to notice the same element in such compound names of trees as hornbeam, whitebeam, etc.

The conclusion, therefore, is that in diachronic treatment the only rigorous criterion is that of etymology observed in explanatory dictionaries of the English language where words are separated according to their origin, as in match1 ‘a piece of inflammable material you strike fire with’ (from OFr mesche, Fr mèche) and match2 (from OE gemæcca ‘fellow’).

It is interesting to note that out of 2540 homonyms listed in “The Oxford English Dictionary” only 7% are due to disintegration of polysemy, all the others are etymologically different. One must, however, keep in mind that patterned homonymy is here practically disregarded.

This underestimation of regular patterned homonymy tends to produce a false impression. Actually the homonymy of nouns and verbs due to the processes of loss of endings on the one hand and conversion

1 See p. 192 where a formal procedure is suggested.

on the other is one of the most prominent features of present-day English. The process has been analysed in detail in the chapter on conversion. It may be combined with semantic changes as in the pair long a: : long v. The explanation is that when it seems long before something comes to you, you long for it (long a<OE 1апz, lonz a <OE lanzian v), so that me lonzs means ‘it seems long to me’.

The opposite process of morphemic addition can also result in homonymy. This process is chiefly due to independent word-formation with the same affix or to the homonymy of derivational and functional affixes. The suffix -er forms several words with the same stem: trail trailer1 ‘a creeping plant’ : : trailer2 ‘a caravan’, i.e. ‘a vehicle drawn along by another vehicle’.

In summing up this diachronic analysis of homonymy it should be emphasised that there are two ways by which homonyms come into being, namely convergent development of sound form and divergent development of meaning (see table below).

The first may consist in

(a) phonetic change only,

(b) phonetic change combined with loss of affixes,

(c) independent formation from homonymous bases by means of homonymous affixes.

The second, that is divergent development of meaning may be

(a) limited within one lexico-grammatical class of words,

(b) combined with difference in lexico-grammatical class and therefore difference in grammatical functions and distribution,

(c) based on independent formation from the same base by homonymous morphemes.

Table III

Origin of Homonyms


  Convergent development of sound form Divergent semantic development
Independent of morphological changes OE zетæпе ‘common’ Lat medianus mean ‘average’ OE тæпап ‘think' chest ‘large box’ OE cest chest ‘part of human body'
Combined with morphological changes OE lufu n love n, v OE lufian v wait v ME waiten v wait n silence n Lat silentium n silence v


The process can sometimes be more complicated. Thus, according to COD, the verb stick developed as a mixture of ME stiken<OE stician<sticca ‘peg’, and ME steken cognate with Greek stigma. At present there are at least two homonyms: stick v ‘to insert pointed things into’, a highly polysemantic word, and the no less polysemantic stick n ‘a rod’.

In the course of time the number of homonyms on the whole increases, although occasionally the conflict of homonyms ends in word loss.

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