Homonyms: Sound the Same But Have Different Meanings
When I was in college, I wrote a letter to my physician father that we were studying blood, including urethrocytes, in physiology class. Understanding I meant erythrocytes, he was amused and I was confused, but it resulted in no harm.
Later in my medical training, my earlier misuse of urethrocytes was put into perspective when I learned about medical homonyms – terms that sound the same but have different meanings. I also became aware of the importance of using them correctly to avoid harmful errors.
There are two major types of homonyms, homographs (homo – same; graph – writing), and homophones (homo – same; phone – same).
Homographs are words that are spelled the same but have different meanings, such as lead (a metal), and lead (to guide or go ahead of).
Examples of Medical Homographs
- pertaining to the neck, as in cervical vertebra
- pertaining to the lowest segment of the uterus, the uterine cervix
- an area of the skin supplied by a specific nerve root
- a surgical instrument used to cut the skin
Homophones are words that are spelled differently but sound the same and have different meanings, such as there and their.
Examples of Medical Homophones
ileum – the last section of the small intestine, between the jejunum and the colon
ilium – part of the pelvic bone
mucus – a secretion
mucous – an adjective that means resembling mucus
peroneal – pertaining to the lateral aspect of the leg
perineal – pertaining to the pelvic floor of a male or female
vesical – pertaining to the bladder
vesicle – a small blister
Vigilance by all healthcare personnel is a must when using medical homonyms. Misuse may result in harm to the patient and extra healthcare cost. Spellcheck will not bail us out on this one!
Click here for medical terms that have the same meaning but are used differently.
Read other Spotlight on Words.
Terms definitions from Exploring Medical Language, 10th Edition