Bow (homographs)

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Several words commonly used which look the same but have different pronunciations (they are homographs) are represented by the letters bow.

  • One word, with different applications, rhymes with go and show, IPA: /bəʊ/. The basic meaning of this bow is 'a curve', 'something bent to form part of the circumference of a circle'. In this, it is a Germanic equivalent of the Romance arc and its derivatives, such as 'arch' and 'archer'. It gives rise to rainbow, and the archaic common noun 'stonebow', meaning 'a stone arch [of a bridge, a dwelling, or a gate etc]'. The uses of bow in the sense of 'a curve' include a weapon; a (part of) a musical instrument and many others: for more, see Bow (meaning). You may also want to see Bower for an account of the meanings of some derivatives.


  • Two words, plus their derivatives, rhyme with now and how (/baʊ/)
    • The inclination of the body forwards made as a mark of respect, particularly to persons [or things] perceived as

of superior status.

Oddly enough, despite their different pronunciations, this bow (/baʊ/) is derived from /bəʊ/ - the bower (the person bending his body - the /ˈbaʊ ər/) is making a curve of his body. It is cognate with bough, also rhyming with now and how, which means 'a big branch of a tree'.
      • The verb 'to bow' means 'to make such an inclination', to bend respectfully, from the waist in a full bow, or from the neck.
    • The bow of a ship is the front end. Etymologically, it comes from a common Germanic root meaning 'shoulder'. (Ships are still said sometimes 'to shoulder the seas away'.) It is often used in the plural, as in the positional phrase 'in the bows', which indicates a position between, or in the midst of, the port and starboard bows. In the sport of rowing, bow is the rower nearest the front of the boat - the direction of travel.
OED records three other more or less obsolete meanings of bow as a noun: one, pronounced 'BOO', IPA: /buː/, means 'the herd of cattle to be found on an individual farm'; another (with the same pronunciation) is a term of Scots ecclesiastical law; and the third, pronounced like 'so', is the name of a type of china originally produced at Stratford-le-Bow.
The two verbs 'to bow'' which OED recognizes in this pronunciation are rare uses of the meaning of the nouns: 'to bow' (/baʊ/) as 'to curve', 'to [cause to] bend', and (of a ship) (/baʊ/) 'to cut through the water'.
Beware the homophone of 'bow/go/show' beau, and that of 'bow/how/now' bough (~ 'branch')
Bough, bow (and bow (ship) form one of the sets of homophones listed by the then Poet Laureate Robert Bridges.
(For more, see Bridges homophones). AWE has a category listing our articles on each of these.