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What Is Metonymy?

G. Wiesen
G. Wiesen

Metonymy is a linguistic device by which one thing is referenced by directly referring to something else that is associated with it. For example, citizens of the US often use the word “Washington” in reference to Washington, D.C., to refer to the US government since the leaders of the federal government work in that city. Similarly, in many countries and time periods that have a ruling class of monarchy, the term “crown” is often used to refer to the actual ruler. Metonymy is somewhat related to and taught with other devices such as metaphor and synecdoche, though they are not the same.

The basic idea behind the usage of metonymy is that people create associations between a particular object and a related object. In the phrase “the pen is mightier than the sword,” for example, there are two instances of metonymy at work. “The pen” does not literally refer to a writing instrument, but instead refers to the process of writing and the expression of ideas, while “the sword” again does not mean a literal weapon, but instead refers to a military group or armed action. Someone who hears this type of phrase is typically able to understand what is meant, since these associations are quite common within a particular culture or society.

Metonymy is used in both fiction and non-fiction literature.
Metonymy is used in both fiction and non-fiction literature.

Metonymy is often related with metaphor, since they can function in somewhat similar ways, though they serve very different purposes. Both devices function by taking advantage of similarities between two things, but metonymy makes this connection through a relationship that is already established between the two things. The use of the word “crown” to indicate royalty utilizes the fact that there is already an explicit connection between royal traditions and the wearing of a crown. A metaphor like “her beauty was an arrow” is not utilizing an already established relationship; it can change in meaning depending on what follows it, such as “that struck me in the chest” or “that she was quick to fire, but lacked precision.”

Synecdoche is also a linguistic device often related to metonymy. The primary difference, however, is that synecdoche specifically uses something that is a part of something else to refer to it. For example, someone who refers to his or her car by saying “check out my wheels” is using synecdoche. In this usage, he or she does not typically mean for someone to just look at the wheels of the car, but uses that one part of the car to refer to the entire object. Some people consider synecdoche to be a specific type of metonymy, though this is not universal and many instructors teach them as separate devices.

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Discussion Comments


What I find the most interesting about the use of metonymy and metaphor is that it is even found in religious scriptures. I have seen many uses of metaphors in the Muslim holy book. I'm not an expert or anything and I'm sure religious scholars could give more information and examples about this. I think metonymy is used as well, but maybe less than metaphors.

Of course, the problem with interpreting religious writings, is that you never really know if something is said literally or metaphorically. For example, when it is said "the throne of God," I don't know if that's talking about the physical throne, or if it is metonymy or metaphor for the supreme authority, the power and strength of God. Similarly, God is often referred to as "King," which might be another metonymy.

Metaphors are also very common. There is one phrase which says that a certain people will be accepted into heaven when a camel goes through the hole of a needle. Clearly that means never! It's so interesting how even religion relies on part-whole descriptions, similarities, contrasts and metaphors to help its devotees understand better.


I think in English, we have use metonymies a lot where we refer to a place but actually mean the people in it. I hear it everyday on the news, when reporters say "the White House said..." We do the same with institutions and even countries too. We refer to the Catholic Church, but actually mean the Pope. We talk about countries doing things, but we mean the Presidents or Prime Ministers of those countries.

I wonder if there are so many metonymies that are like this because these places are sort of the "throne" or the "symbol of power" of these individuals who are representing something bigger than themselves? The White House represents the U.S. government because it is the home of the President. The same is true when a country leader or religious leader says or does something. We accept that leader to be the ultimate representative and spokesperson for that place and the rest of the people in it.

So are metonymies generalizations? Are they references to strength, importance and power? What do you think?


My favorite example of metonymy is the phrase "Are you in shape?" I asked my friend this question once, she is an international student. She had no idea what I meant by shape! She told me yes, she is in shape but then had trouble going up the flights of stairs we had to climb!

It was really funny! I told her, by "shape," we mean "fit." I understood than that metonymies are unique to each culture and reflect the use of language in that country. If someone knows what the actual meaning of a metonymy is, we can say that they are very familiar, or native to that culture.

It's kind of a trick too, since a metonymy rarely has to do with the words and phrases used in it!

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    • Metonymy is used in both fiction and non-fiction literature.
      By: daniaphoto
      Metonymy is used in both fiction and non-fiction literature.