Definition and Examples of Meronyms and Holonyms

Glossary of Grammatical and Rhetorical Terms

The relationship of the word "apple" to the word "apple tree" is called a meronymy. Colin Anderson/Getty Images

In semantics, a meronym is a word that denotes a constituent part or a member of something. For example, apple is a meronym of apple tree (sometimes written as apple<apple tree). This part-to-whole relationship is called meronymy. Adjective: meronymous.

Meronymy is not just a single relation but a bundle of different part-to-whole relationships.

The opposite of a meronym is a holonym—the name of the whole of which the meronym is a part.

Apple tree is a holonym of apple (apple tree>apple). The whole-to-part relationship is called holonymy. Adjective: holonymous.

From the Greek, "part" + "name"

Examples and Observations

"[I]n one context finger is an appropriate meronym of hand, and in other cases flesh is an appropriate meronym of hand. Finger and flesh, however, are not co-meronyms of hand, since different relational criteria (functional part versus material) are applied in each case."
(M. Lynne Murphy, Semantic Relations and the Lexicon: Antonymy, Synonymy and Other Paradigms. Cambridge University Press, 2003)​

Types of Meronym Relationships

"At one level meronyms can be divided into two types: 'necessary' and 'optional' (Lyons 1977), otherwise called 'canonical' and 'facilitative' (Cruse, 1986). An example of necessary meronymy is eye<face. Having an eye is a necessary condition of a well-formed face, and even if it is removed, an eye is still a face part.

Optional meronymy includes examples like cushion<chair—there are chairs without cushions and cushions that exist independently of chairs."

(Concise Encyclopedia of Semantics, ed. by Keith Allan. Elsevier, 2009)

"Meronymy is a term used to describe a part-whole relationship between lexical items. Thus cover and page are meronyms of book.

. . .

"Meronyms vary . . . in how necessary the part is to the whole. Some are necessary for normal examples, for example nose as a meronym of face; others are usual but not obligatory, like collar as a meronym of shirt; still others are optional like cellar for house."
(John I. Saeed, Semantics, 2nd ed. Wiley-Blackwell, 2003)

"In many ways, meronymy is significantly more complicated than hyponymy. The Wordnet databases specify three types of meronym relationships:

(Jon Orwant, Games, Diversions, and Perl Culture. O'Reilly & Associates, 2003)

  • Part meronym: a 'tire' is part of a 'car'
  • Member meronym: a 'car' is a member of a 'traffic jam'
  • Substance (stuff) meronym: a 'wheel' is made from 'rubber'"​

Synecdoche and Meronym/Holonymy

"The two commonly acknowledged variants of synecdoche, part for the whole (and vice versa) and genus for species (and vice versa), find their correspondence in the linguistic concepts of meronymy/holonymy and hyponymy/hypernymy. A meronym denotes a word or other element that together with other elements constitutes a whole. Thus, 'bark,' 'leaf,' and 'branch' are meronyms of the holonym 'tree.' A hyponym, on the other hand, denotes a word that belongs to a subset whose elements are collectively summarized by a hypernym.

Thus, 'tree,' 'flower,' 'bush' are hyponyms of the hypernym 'plant.' A first observation to be made here is that these two concepts describe relationships on different levels: meronymy/holonymy describes a relationship between elements of material objects. It is the referential object 'leaf' which in extralingual reality forms a part of the whole 'tree.' Hyponymy/hypernymy, by contrast, refers to a relationship between concepts. 'Flowers" and 'trees" are jointly classified as 'plants.' but in extralingual reality there is no 'plant' that consists of 'flowers' and 'trees.'  In other words, the first relationship is extralingual, the second relationship is conceptual."

(Sebastian Matzner, Rethinking Metonymy: Literary Theory and Poetic Practice From Pindar to Jakobson. Oxford University Press, 2016)