What Are Metonyms? Definition and Examples

Glossary of Grammatical and Rhetorical Terms

This sculpted loaf of bread is a metonym for the bakery it stands in front of
John Elk / Getty Images

A metonym is a word or phrase used in place of another with which it's closely associated. One of the four master tropes, metonyms have traditionally been associated with metaphors. Like metaphors, metonyms are figures of speech used in everyday conversation as well as in literature and rhetorical texts. But whereas a metaphor offers an implicit comparison, a metonym is a part or attribute of a thing that represents the thing itself. Its etymology is a back-formation from metonymy: from the Greek, "change of name".

Examples and Observations

"The part that is chosen to be a metonym of its whole is not arbitrary. Such a part must be in some sense outstanding, easily recognizable, and play a unique role in the whole. . . . A steering wheel would be a good metonym for driving, a violin a good metonym for a classical orchestra, bread a good metonym for a baker's shop, a file folder a good metonym for organizing documents in a computer.

"Metonyms provide the basis for a human-centered theory of signs. Traffic signs, for example, might employ pictograms of the road, a car, bicycle, or pedestrian, but they do not represent anything beyond the part-whole relationship."
(Klaus Krippendorff, The Semantic Turn. CRC Press, 2006)

Hoodies, Suits, and Skirts

"It might be asking us a bit much to hug a hoodie, but if you're confronted by one of these strange creatures, why not try and bug a hoodie by pointing out to him that the word 'hoodie' is an example of a metonym? As you stare into the blank depths of his eyes, you could point out hastily, but with growing confidence, that a metonym is a way of referring to something by one of its attributes. So when we say 'hoodie,' we mean 'a sweatshirt with a hood and also the person who wears it.' The same goes for 'suits,' which is a metonym for men in suits, while 'skirts' is a metonym for 'women (who wear skirts).'"
(Alex Games, Balderdash & Piffle: One Sandwich Short of a Dog's Dinner. BBC Books, 2007)


"[M]etonyms seem so natural that they are easily taken for granted, and we fail to realize that another metonym might give a very different picture of the same whole. A militantly protesting striker and a bored cold striker are both part of the same picket line, but they may be represented as significantly different metonyms."
(Tim O'Sullivan, Key Concepts in Communication. Taylor & Francis, 1983)

The Smoke

"A metonym is the application of a mere attribute of an object to the whole object. For instance many Londoners call their city 'The Smoke.' Smoke used to be a characteristic part of the London scene, resulting in the smogs which were called (metaphorically) 'pea-soupers.' It came to signify the city as a whole, but this time the relationship between the signifier (Smoke) and its signified (London) is contiguous rather than asserted."
(John Fiske and John Hartley, Reading Television. Routledge, 1978)

Unconventional Metonyms

"Non-conventional or innovative metonyms are one of the most frequently discussed types of metonym in the general literature on semantics. The classical example is ham sandwich, used by a waiter to refer to a customer consuming a ham sandwich, in:

'The ham sandwich is sitting at table 20' (Nunberg 1979:149)

These metonyms can only be understood in the context in which they are uttered, because the use is not an established sense of term. In this example, 'customer' is not a generally recognised sense of ham sandwich, and so the expression is only interpretable as referring to a customer either through the co-text 'is sitting at table 20,' or through non-linguistic context, where, for example, the speaker indicates through a gesture that the referent is a person."
(Alice Deignan, Metaphor and Corpus Linguistics. John Benjamins, 2005)

Metonyms and Metaphors

"'One of the fundamental tools of semiotics is the distinction between metaphor and metonymy. D’you want me to explain it to you?'
"'It’ll pass the time,' he said.
"'Metaphor is a figure of speech based on similarity, whereas metonymy is based on contiguity. In metaphor you substitute something like the thing you mean for the thing itself, whereas in metonymy you substitute some attribute or cause or effect of the thing for the thing itself.'
"'I don’t understand a word you’re saying.'
"'Well, take one of your moulds. The bottom bit is called the drag because it’s dragged across the floor and the top bit is called the cope because it covers the bottom bit.'
"'I told you that.'
"'Yes, I know. What you didn’t tell me was that drag is a metonymy and cope is a metaphor.'
"Vic grunted. 'What difference does it make?'
"'It’s just a question of understanding how language works.' . . .
"'The Marlboro ad . . . establishes a metonymic connection--completely spurious of course, but realistically plausible--between smoking that particular brand and the healthy, heroic, outdoor life of the cowboy. Buy the cigarette and you buy the life-style, or the fantasy of living it.'"
(David Lodge, Nice Work. Viking, 1988)

Compound Metaphors and Compound Metonyms

"Like metaphor, metonymy also comes in a compound-word form. While the compound metaphor makes a fanciful figurative comparison between two unlike realms ('snail mail'), a compound metonym, in distinction, characterizes a single domain by using an associated literal attribute as a characterizing adjective, for example, coffee-table book: a (usually expensive) large-format book that is too big to fit on a bookshelf, thus it's displayed on a table--effect for the cause. A compound metonym--usually two or three words--can be readily distinguished from a compound metaphor by a definition that always begins one that, one who, those which, and is followed by a significant quality or attribute. For instance, a Frisbee dog is one that has been trained to catch Frisbees (an attribute). One of the most memorable lyrical compound metonyms is Lennon and McCartney's 'kaleidoscope eyes' those which after taking a hallucinogen, see the world in refracted images ('Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds')."
(Sheila Davis, The Songwriter's Idea Book. Writer's Digest Books, 1992)

Visual Metonyms

"A visual metonym is a symbolic image that is used to make reference to something with a more literal meaning. For example, a cross might be used to signify the church. By way of association, the viewer makes a connection between the image and the intended subject. Unlike a visual synecdoche, the two images bear a close relationship, but are not intrinsically linked. And unlike visual metaphors, metonyms do not transfer the characteristics of one image to another. [For example], the yellow taxi cab is typically associated with New York, although it is not physically part of the city."
(Gavin Ambrose and Paul Harris, Image. AVA Publishing, 2005)

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Nordquist, Richard. "What Are Metonyms? Definition and Examples." ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, thoughtco.com/metonym-figure-of-speech-1691387. Nordquist, Richard. (2023, April 5). What Are Metonyms? Definition and Examples. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/metonym-figure-of-speech-1691387 Nordquist, Richard. "What Are Metonyms? Definition and Examples." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/metonym-figure-of-speech-1691387 (accessed June 5, 2023).