I came across the word oronym while researching the meanings of homophones, homonyms, homographs, and such.
Until I discovered the word, I had no idea there was such a name for a concept I was more than familiar with. Given the way the English language is structured and spoken, it should have come as no surprise.
Having inherited a love of wordplay from my parents, ever since my father referred to something being ‘under the neath’ instead of ‘underneath’, I thought it would be fun to write about them here – oronyms that is, not my parents.
What is an Oronym?
The term oronym was first coined by Gyles Brandreth in his book The Joy of Lex and describes a pair of phrases which are homophonic, they share a similar chain of consonants and vowels which sound alike when spoken. For example:
“Ice cream” vs. “I scream”
“Example” vs. “Egg sample”
“Real eyes” vs. “Realise” vs. “Real lies”
“That stuff” vs. “That’s tough”
“A dressed male” vs. “Addressed mail”
“Them all” vs. “The mall”
This type of wordplay is only possible because the sequence of sounds in one phrase is identical to the sequence of sounds in the other phrase, but the two phrases have entirely different meanings. Similar plays on words exist in other languages for similar reasons.
According to Wikipedia, oronym is also, ‘a name of a hill, mountain, or mountain-range’, just as hydronym is the general term for a body of water and phytonym is a name of a plant. You’ll have to look up the suffix -onym on Wikipedia to get your head round that one.
Differences in pronunciation determine what constitutes an oronym
Dialect and regional accent determine whether an oronym exists. For instance, the flat a of some English speakers means “the mall” would not be mistaken for “them all” as mall would be pronounced as in Al, rather than as in all. People from the same region can pronounce ‘example’ with a clear x or make it sound like a g, as in ‘egg sample’. Similarly, ‘sandwiches’ can sound like ‘samwiches’.
What is an oronym to one person won’t be to another.
Cutting the phonetic string
Separating words at the correct point to make distinctly separate words is referred to as ‘cutting the phonetic string’ (who’d a thought it?). Oronyms usually rely on the speaker running two or more words together rather than separating them, or separating them at a different point.
Take the string of words, ‘an aim’. If the speaker separates the string before the n it becomes, ‘a name’. Generally speaking, this distinction is not always discernible. We tend to understand what someone is saying in context with the rest of the conversation.
“Do you know what four candles look like?”
“No. Give us an egg sample.”
“What about I scream?”
“Oh, that’s tough.”
Corny, I know. Dead corny in fact. Hopefully, the above example will make it clear how we interpret speech in conversation based on the subject being discussed. Read it out loud and see how much sense it makes.
The author accepts no responsibility for the poor egg sample given above.
Oronyms as a source of humour
Part of humour all over the world is based around misunderstanding something that is said and the misfortune that befalls the speaker and the listener. This was used to great effect in an English TV show, “The Two Ronnies”. In the sketch a customer comes into a shop and asks for a number of items that are all misinterpreted by the shopkeeper. Of all the items on his list, the phrase “Four candles” has stuck in the Nation’s psyche. The customer was actually asking for “Fork handles”.
Are there any more oronyms you can think of, whether in English or another language? It would be fun to share them here.