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12 Comments

  • 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”.

  • 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”.

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • 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.