What is metonymy? Enquiring minds want to know

Posted by on December 09, 2013

© Photodisc / Getty Images / Barton StablerMetonymy 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.

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Comments (12)
  • Great post, Stan, on a very productive mechanism in language. Your mention of “suit” reminds me of something I read the other day. “The suits” is a disparaging term for the (supposedly boring and faceless) people in an organization who do the accounts and general management, and who prevent the creative types (who never wear suits) from doing what they want. I’ve now seen references to “the blazers”, who are the people that run sporting bodies like FIFA or the Olympic committee – they’re supposed to wear blazers rather than suits. In a nice new blend, i saw this last week: “The blazerati of the Football Association are well known for their dislike of controversy”.

    Posted by Michael Rundell on 9th December, 2013
  • Thanks, Michael. It’s a very interesting phenomenon, and so familiar it often flies under our cognitive radar. Metonymic “blazers” is new to me, and “blazerati” is a nice blend following the pattern laid down by other -erati forms. (Michael Quinion has looked briefly at these.) It’s in much the same vein as other clothing-based metonyms, and there’s often something stereotypical about the clothing in question, as with “suits” and “bow ties” and “white/blue-collar workers”.

    Posted by Stan Carey on 9th December, 2013
  • Do “great minds think alike” and “enquiring minds want to know” really count as examples of metonymy? Hard to tell. You could say Yes on the basis that the thinking and enquiring is done by people, or No on the basis that the thinking and enquiring is done by minds.

    Posted by Jonathan Marks on 11th December, 2013
  • It’s a good question, Jonathan. (There was some discussion about this on Twitter, too.) You can make a case either way, I think. I’m inclined to see it as metonymy, because “enquiring minds” seems to me to substitute for “enquiring people”, but it’s definitely open to other interpretations.

    Posted by Stan on 11th December, 2013
  • Sorry to be difficult but this is not a very good definition of metonymy. Metonymy is a trope that relies on continguity rather than similarity for reference to the source domain. This is what distinguishes it from metaphor and simile. Close association is not enough because that can work for metaphor, as well. E.g. calling police ‘pigs’. The historical taglines ‘pars pro toto’ (part for whole) and ‘totum pro parte’ (whole for part) summarize the workings of metonymy perfectly. Traditionally ‘pars pro toto’ is called synechdoche but most modern scholarship uses metonymy to refer to both. I notice that the different Wikipedia entries are a bit confused on the matter, too. All terms like these are a bit fuzzy around the edges but as far as metonymy/synechdoche go, the distinction is actually reasonably clear.

    So, ‘hitting the rear end of a car’ is not a very good example for metonymy because it’s actually a fairly literal statement, similar to ‘puncturing a tyre’. But if you did think of the ‘rear end’ as a human’s ‘rear end’, as in ‘that car rammed my butt’, then that would be a metaphor where a human body part represents a part of a car. Not all metonymy has to rely on a physical connection, the contiguity could be a part of a process or a typical scenario (e.g. your ‘pen is mightier than the sword’).

    A great recent example of metonymy was Mitt Romney’s reference to having ‘folders full of women’. I am no fan of the man, but the press then behaved with its usual linguistic hamfistedness and made fun of him for a perfectly acceptable figure of speech.

    Some people believe that the distinction between metaphor and metonymy represent a crucial divide but I do think that they play a similar role in figurative language and language in general. So despite my criticism, I don’t think the terms matter all that much.

    However, to continue with my nitpicking, meronymy has nothing to do with this. It is simply a name for a part of something. So ‘wheels’ are a meronym of ‘car’ and ‘bike’ but calling a nice car ‘sharp wheels’ is synechdoche, not meronymy as your link erroneously claims. Meronyms together with hyponyms and hyperonyms are simply terms that describe semantic relationships between words.

    Posted by Dominik Lukes (@techczech) on 13th December, 2013
  • One important feature of metonymy I forgot to mention is chaining. A famous example by Michael Reddy is “You’ll find better ideas than that in the library.” where ideas are expressed in words, printed on pages, bound in books, stored in libraries. It has been argued that these chains illustrate the very nature of metonymic inference.
    This process of chaining will also place ‘inquiring minds want to know’ in the metonymy camp unless we wanted to claim that this phrase reified and anthropomorphized ‘minds’ who then have the agency to want to know. This is not all that implausible because ‘my mind has a mind of its own’ is out there: http://youtu.be/SdUZe2BddHo. But on the whole, I think that this most likely to follow the ‘we have a lot of sharp minds in this class’ pattern of conceptualization for most people.

    Posted by Dominik Lukes (@techczech) on 13th December, 2013
  • Stan:

    Man’s reach should exceed his grasp,/Else what’s a metaphor?

    Posted by marc leavitt on 13th December, 2013
  • Marc: Thereby we contain / A different domain.

    Dominik: Thanks for your thoughtful and constructive criticism. I debated whether to refer to contiguity in the post, and in retrospect I should have done. Note however that I didn’t use the example hitting the rear end of a car, which as you say is quite literal; I used [hitting] my rear end, which is a significantly different form of reference. (By the way, Romney said “binders full of women”, not folders, though this is not a significant difference.)
    I would also disagree that meronymy “has nothing to do with this”: it too concerns part–whole relationships, albeit at the level of word meanings. My initial draft used the example of wheels being a meronym of car, in turn a meronym (of a different type) of traffic. But to avoid getting too sidetracked, I omitted it in the end.

    Posted by Stan on 14th December, 2013
  • Hi Stan, I wrote up my own version of what is metonymy on http://metaphorhacker.net/2013/12/binders-full-of-women-with-mighty-pens-what-is-metonymy/ where I tried to expand on some of the things you comment on as well as metonymic chains and the role of meronymy. Any comments would be welcome.

    Posted by Dominik Lukes (@techczech) on 14th December, 2013
  • excellent write up

    Posted by Ramji on 27th December, 2013
  • Thanks for reading, Ramji.

    Posted by Stan on 29th December, 2013
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