This is question about synonymous homonyms in Chinese, in particular, two-character words with same sound, tone. Edit: to keep the question simple and broad, I am using the word "homonym" in a non-technical way and the requirement of same-tone is dispensable.

I wonder if the immense number of Chinese speakers and limited number of sounds/tones frequently leads to the formation of synonyms based on a speaker's misapprehension of the origin of a word. For example:

邮轮 and 游轮.

They both are defined in some dictionaries (for example the Yabla on-line dictionary, in which the second occurs in the phrase 'Royal Caribbean Cruise Lines' ) as "cruise liner" or "ocean liner." I suspect that, while an educated speaker would have an opinion about most of these occurrences, it's basically an unavoidable consequence of the structure of the language.

A similar pressure exists in English, for example, to simplify spelling.

It seems likely to me that this has been the subject of a lot of discussion somewhere and I wonder if someone knows of a paper or article on the subject? Of course comments/answers also welcome.

Also if there are other examples of this situation that would interest me too. Thanks.

Another example, in case this is not clear:

From the song "No House No Car,"

保养, "to take care of,"

in the subtitles given as


In this example I relaxed the requirement of same-tone, as the two first characters do not bear the same tone. And the following:

浇注, "to cast [metal]" and

浇铸, same tones same meaning, more or less.

  • 1
    邮轮 can also mean 'mail ship' and this is its strict meaning.
    – user58955
    Commented Mar 30, 2015 at 4:23

3 Answers 3


We call these words "异形词" in Chinese.

Definition from Wikipedia:


Here's a link for 《第一批异形词整理表》: http://www.edu.cn/20011228/3015609.shtml

And there is 《264组异形词整理表(草案)》 as a supplement : http://dwz.cn/FR5gW

To look for papers on this subject, just search "异性词" on google scholar or other databases and you can find plenty:

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  • This looks promising, give me some time to digest. Thank you!
    – daniel
    Commented Apr 4, 2015 at 14:19

The Chinese language, especially formal register Chinese, seems to like balanced words, i.e., 2 characters (chars). There are different permutations internally for 2-char words (V O rendered externally as a V; adj N rendered externally as a N; etc.). I am only using the permutation that has both chars with the same meaning (be it V V, or N N, e.g.). Analysing the list of 2-char words I have compiled for my teaching, I also noticed that some are 1st char is formal register, 2nd char is informal (e.g., 邀请); whilst some are the other way round.

邀请 yāoqǐng: I teach my students "Guessology" (my own coinage) to arrive at the final meaning: just go for the meaning of one of them (请 for them at the lower levels; it's one of the first chars they learn, in 请问, e.g.), and let that represent the whole.

Also, I teach them to think of it in terms of the "Rule of Balance": to balance a word, you have to find friends (you don't get enemies to form a team), so if 请 = to invite (among other meanings: to request, to treat [hospitality-wise, not hospital-wise]), then you can fairly confidently predict that 邀 should = to invite (even if you have no idea what the pronunciation is). So, you don't need to know the meanings of both chars to get the meaning of the whole word.

This is, of course, a very rough "rule". It's a strategy I teach my students, especially for exams and real life, where they won't/mightn't have the time to look up half-unknowns in a dictionary, digital or not. This is, of course, useful for reading only (with your eyes), as you don't need the pronunciation, just the meaning.

You can extend the Guessology logic to other unknowns. If you guess that 邀 = to invite (from 请), then the next time you come across 邀 in combination with another unknown char, you can apply the same rule: if 邀 = to invite, then the unknown char must also = to invite, say.

Of course, "rules" are never 100%. If it's 邀买 (in 邀买人心), then it's V1 V2 (2 different meanings put together for a chronological process), or 邀功 (take credit [for sb else's effort]), then it's V O construction.

So, always be flexible and consider all sorts of other possibilities.


Without sounding too technical, a homonym appears to mean 'of the same sound' (homophone) and/or 'of the same form' (homograph), but the common usage of the word homonym is to mean

one of a group of words that share the same spelling and pronunciation but have different meanings

Thus, a 'synonymous homonym' is an oxymoron. From your description, you're looking for alternative but equally acceptable form of any 2-character Chinese word where either form would mean the same thing? If that's the case, then all of the simplified rendition of traditional characters in a word would fit the definition.

More specifically, you could skip all those simplified characters that were 'invented' (or 'reinvented' from cursive form of Chinese writing) but focus on those that are borrowed from other traditional characters, but often seen in a simplified form of the word.

The followings would all fit your definition

油輪 <--> 油轮 (both mean oil tanker)

is probably not what you're interested.

遊輪 <--> 游轮 (both mean cruise ship)

is probably not interesting, either. 遊 and 游 have distinct meanings and usage (due to their different radicals) but the difference is only observed in traditional Chinese.

鞦韆 <--> 秋千 (both mean a swing (seat))

is only borderline interesting, because the former is simply not in use in simplified Chinese.

So you might be looking for the following synonymous pairs

勅令<-->敕令 (simplified: 勅令<-->敕令)

復蘇<-->復甦 (复苏<--> ...)

版本<-->板本 (版本<-->板本)

指摘<-->指責 (指摘<-->指责)

風頭<-->鋒頭 (风头<-->锋头)

鍛鍊<-->鍛煉 (锻鍊<-->锻炼)

小器<-->小氣 (小器<-->小气)

I will leave their English definition to you.

  • 1
    In your last list: the last pair are synonyms? The first pair are homonyms? I started to edit my post in response to your observation, but the plain meaning of "homonym" is "a word with the same sound [as another word]." The plain meaning of "synonym" is "a word with the same meaning [as another word]." My example consists of a two-character word, same syllables, same tones, that (in some dictionary) have the same basic meaning. After thinking about it I think the question is clear. The word "homophone" is used in a general and non-technical way. The Wiki entry seems to support such usage.
    – daniel
    Commented Mar 31, 2015 at 14:17
  • @daniel 1. Yes they are. Please see citations within chinese.stackexchange.com/questions/12565 2. My bad. Here is the intended reference zdic.net/z/16/js/52C5.htm 3. Please click on the dictionary definition of ''homonym" that I provided on the second link of the word.
    – SYK
    Commented Mar 31, 2015 at 16:16
  • @daniel or dictionary.reference.com/browse/homonym or merriam-webster.com/dictionary/homonym or oxforddictionaries.com/definition/english/homonym It would be unwise to redefine the word just to broaden its scope.
    – SYK
    Commented Mar 31, 2015 at 16:34
  • 1
    Please read you own link. "In non-technical contexts, the term "homonym" may be used (somewhat confusingly) to refer to words that are either homographs or homophones." My question only makes sense if the word is broadly construed so I don't think there's any danger of confusion.
    – daniel
    Commented Mar 31, 2015 at 17:33

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