What Is Metonymy?

Metonymy of the Golden Arches
Metonymy of the Golden Arches.

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Metonymy is a figure of speech (or trope) in which one word or phrase is substituted for another with which it's closely associated (such as "crown" for "royalty").

Metonymy is also the rhetorical strategy of describing something indirectly by referring to things around it, as in describing someone's clothing to characterize the individual. Adjective: metonymic.

A variant of metonymy is synecdoche.

Etymology: From the Greek, "change of name"

Examples and Observations

  • "In a corner, a cluster of lab coats made lunch plans."
    (Karen Green, Bough Down. Siglio, 2013)
  • "Many standard items of vocabulary are metonymic. A red-letter day is important, like the feast days marked in red on church calendars. . . . On the level of slang, a redneck is a stereotypical member of the white rural working class in the Southern U.S., originally a reference to necks sunburned from working in the fields."
    (Connie Eble, "Metonymy." The Oxford Companion to the English Language, 1992)
  • "In Stockholm, Sweden, where Obama was traveling on Wednesday, the White House praised the vote and said that it would continue to seek support for a 'military response'"
    (David Espo, "Obama Wins Backing From Senate Panel on Syria Strike." Associated Press, September 5, 2013)
  • "Whitehall prepares for a hung parliament."
    (The Guardian, January 1, 2009)
  • "Fear gives wings."
    (Romanian proverb)
  • "He used the events to show the Silicon Valley crowd that he was just like them--and that he understood their financial needs better than the suits on Wall Street."
    (Businessweek, 2003)
  • "I stopped at a bar and had a couple of double Scotches. They didn't do me any good. All they did was make me think of Silver Wig, and I never saw her again."
    (Raymond Chandler, The Big Sleep)

Using Part of an Expression for the Whole

"One of the favorite American metonymic processes is the one in which a part of a longer expression is used to stand for the whole expression. Here are some examples of the 'part of an expression for the whole expression' metonymy in American English:

Danish for Danish pastry
shocks for shock absorbers
wallets for wallet-sized photos
Ridgemont High for Ridgemont High School
the States for the United States

(Zoltán Kövecses, American English: An Introduction. Broadview, 2000)

The Real World and the Metonymic World

"[I]n the case of metonymy, . . . one object stands for another. For example, understanding the sentence"

The ham sandwich left a big tip.

Involves identifying the ham sandwich with the thing he or she ate and setting up a domain in which the ham sandwich refers to the person. This domain is separate from the 'real' world, in which the phrase 'ham sandwich refers to a ham sandwich. The distinction between the real world and the metonymic world can be seen in the sentence:

The waitress spoke to the complaining ham sandwich and then she took it away.

This sentence does not make sense; it uses the phrase 'ham sandwich' to refer both to the person (in the metonymic world) and a ham sandwich (in the real world)." (Arthur B. Markman, Knowledge Representation. Lawrence Erlbaum, 1999)

Going to Bed

"The following trivial metonymic [utterance] may serve as an illustration of an idealized cognitive model:

(1) Let's go to bed now.

Going to bed is typically understood metonymically in the sense of 'going to sleep.' This metonymic target forms part of an idealized script in our culture: when I want to sleep, I first go to bed before I lie down and fall asleep. Our knowledge of this sequence of acts is exploited in metonymy: in referring to the initial act we evoke the whole sequence of acts, in particular the central act of sleeping." (Günter Radden, "The Ubiquity of Metonymy." Cognitive and Discourse Approaches to Metaphor and Metonymy, ed. by José Luis Otal Campo, Ignasi Navarro i Ferrando, and Begoña Bellés Fortuño. Universitat Jaume, 2005)

Metonymy in Cigarette Advertising

  • "Metonymy is common in cigarette advertising in countries where legislation prohibits depictions of the cigarettes themselves or of people using them. " (Daniel Chandler, Semiotics. Routledge, 2007)
  • "Metonymic ads often feature a specific product attribute: Benson & Hedges the gold cigarette box, Silk Cut the use of purple, Marlboro the use of red . . .." (Sean Brierley, The Advertising Handbook. Routledge, 1995)
  • "As a form of association, metonymy is particularly powerful in making arguments. It not only links two disparate signs but makes an implicit argument about their similarities. . . . One of the most famous cigarette slogans was developed by Sigmund Freud's nephew, Edward Bernays who, in creating the phrase 'You've come a long way, baby!' hoped to 'expunge the hussy label from women who smoked publicly' by referring to cigarettes as 'torches of freedom.' This was one of the early examples of an advertising slogan that relied on social context to be imbued with meaning. As with most good metonyms, this image was linked with a cultural referent that aided in the persuasion." (Jonathan W. Rose, Making "Pictures in Our Heads": Government Advertising in Canada. Greenwood, 2000)

The Difference Between Metaphor and Metonymy

  • "Metaphor creates the relation between its objects, while metonymy presupposes that relation." (Hugh Bredin, "Metonymy." Poetics Today, 1984)
  • "Metonymy and metaphor also have fundamentally different functions. Metonymy is about referring: a method of naming or identifying something by mentioning something else which is a component part or symbolically linked. In contrast, a metaphor is about understanding and interpretation: it is a means to understand or explain one phenomenon by describing it in terms of another." (Murray Knowles and Rosamund Moon, Introducing Metaphor. Routledge, 2006)
  • "If metaphor works by transposing qualities from one plane of reality to another, metonymy works by associating meanings within the same plane. . . . The representation of reality inevitably involves a metonym: we choose a part of 'reality' to stand for the whole. The urban settings of television crime serials are metonyms—a photographed street is not meant to stand for the street itself, but as a metonym of a particular type of city life--inner-city squalor, suburban respectability, or city-centre sophistication." (John Fiske, Introduction to Communication Studies, 2nd ed. Routledge, 1992)

The Difference Between Metonymy and Synecdoche

"Metonymy resembles and is sometimes confused with the trope of synecdoche. While likewise based on a principle of contiguity, synecdoche occurs when a part is used to represent a whole or a whole to represent a part, as when workers are referred to as 'hands' or when a national football team is signified by reference to the nation to which it belongs: 'England beat Sweden.' As way of example, the saying that 'The hand that rocks the cradle rules the world' illustrates the difference between metonymy and synecdoche. Here, 'the hand' is a synecdochic representation of the mother of whom it is a part, while 'the cradle' represents a child by close association." (Nina Norgaard, Beatrix Busse, and Rocío Montoro, Key Terms in Stylistics. Continuum, 2010)

Semantic Metonymy

"An oft-cited example of metonymy is the noun tongue, which designates not only a human organ but also a human capacity in which the organ plays a conspicuous part. Another noted example is the change of orange from the name of a fruit to the color of that fruit. Since orange refers to all instances of the color, this change also includes generalization. A third example (Bolinger, 1971) is the verb want, which once meant 'lack' and changed to the contiguous sense of 'desire.' In these examples, both senses still survive.

"Such examples are established; where several meanings survive, we have semantic metonymy: the meanings are related and also independent of each other. Orange is a polysemic word, it's two distinct and nondependent meanings metonymically related." (Charles Ruhl, On Monosemy: A Study in Linguistic Semantics. SUNY Press, 1989)

Discourse-Pragmatic Functions of Metonymy

"One of the most important discourse-pragmatic functions of metonymy is to enhance cohesion and coherence of the utterance. It is something that is already at the very heart of metonymy as a conceptual operation where one content stands for another but both are actively activated at least to some degree. In other words, metonymy is an efficient way of saying two things for the price of one, i.e. two concepts are activated while only one is explicitly mentioned (cf. Radden & Kövecses 1999:19). This necessarily enhances the cohesion of an utterance because two topical concepts are referred to by means of one label, and there is consequently, at least nominally, less shifting or switching between these two topics." (Mario Brdar and Rita Brdar-Szabó, "The (Non-)Metonymic Uses of Place Names in English, German, Hungarian, and Croatian." Metonymy and Metaphor in Grammar, ed. by Klaus-Uwe Panther, Linda L. Thornburg, and Antonio Barcelona. John Benjamins, 2009)

Pronunciation: me-TON-uh-me

Also Known As: denominatio, misnamer, transmutation

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Your Citation
Nordquist, Richard. "What Is Metonymy?" ThoughtCo, Feb. 16, 2021, thoughtco.com/metonymy-figures-of-speech-1691388. Nordquist, Richard. (2021, February 16). What Is Metonymy? Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/metonymy-figures-of-speech-1691388 Nordquist, Richard. "What Is Metonymy?" ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/metonymy-figures-of-speech-1691388 (accessed March 21, 2023).

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