Metonymy is a figure of speech which, though common, easily goes unnoticed. It’s when you replace the name of something with the name of another thing closely associated with it, or (defined more broadly) with the name of one of its parts or attributes. The word literally means ‘change of name’ – it has the same meta- prefix we see in metamorphosis.
Examples will clarify. In the familiar saying the pen is mightier than the sword, neither noun is meant literally – rather, they refer by metonymy to the acts of writing and warfare, respectively. Similarly, a suit can mean a businessperson; brass, military personnel; and a stuffed shirt a boring conformist. When we ask a business if they take plastic, we’re asking metonymically if they accept credit cards, as opposed to other payment methods. And the word word can mean various things by metonymy.
Centres of power are often metonymized. Journalists talk about Washington or the White House when they mean the president or presidency of the USA, they use Downing Street as shorthand for the office of the UK prime minister, the crown for the queen, king, or monarchy, and Brussels for institutions of the European Union. In common parlance the law often substitutes for the police, while Hollywood can mean that area’s film industry and Silicon Valley the tech industry.
Body parts recur in metonymy, as they do in metaphor. If a driver hits my rear end, I mean the back of my vehicle. A language may be called a tongue. Many hands make light work refers not to hands specifically but to people willing to help. The same principle applies to give me a hand, hired hand, and hired gun. We can tally new faces by counting heads and if they are brilliant thinkers we might call them great minds.
A similar example is enquiring minds, as in the expression Enquiring minds want to know. I used this recently as the basis for a self-referential tweet, asking: ‘What’s a good example of metonymy? Enquiring minds want to know.’ Unfortunately, almost everyone missed the joke; Twitter is just too helpful sometimes (and by Twitter I mean people on Twitter). But I got good answers.
Narrow definitions of metonymy restrict it to references of association like most of the ones we’ve looked at. Broader definitions include part–whole type relations, which also characterize the rhetorical devices meronymy and synecdoche. Both of these apply to a line like: ‘I’ve got wheels – wanna take a drive?’, where you’re referring to your car, not its wheels. But the boundaries between these categories are a bit blurry at the edges, so if the distinctions seem fuzzy sometimes, don’t sweat it.Email this Post