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What Is the Function of Metonymy in Literature?

By Mark Wollacott
Updated May 23, 2024
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The function of metonymy in literature is to replace a noun with a figure of speech. This means replacing a word with another one. The replacing word is usually known within the culture, but may not be immediately obvious to second language speakers. Metonymy is used in rhetoric, literature and news reporting. An example of metonymy is the use of ‘Westminster’ to mean the British government.

Metonymy is closely related to other phenomenon. This includes polysemy, kennings and synecdoche. Polysemy occurs when a word or phrase can have more than one meaning. Synecdoche occurs when a word meaning a part of something is used to mean the whole. An example of synecdoche is the use of keel to mean a whole boat or wheels to mean car.

Kennings are an old Anglo-Nordic literary device often found in old poetry. A kenning performs a similar function to the metonymy in literature. Instead of replacing word for word, the kenning replaces a noun with two words. Like metonymy, the kenning is a circumlocution, which uses words as tools. Examples of kennings include using ‘whale road’ to mean ‘sea’ and ‘wave steed’ to mean ‘ship.’

Both fiction and non-fiction make uses of metonymy in literature. Non-fiction includes rhetoric, articles and letters. They are a common occurrence in finance where ‘Wall Street’ is used to describe America’s financial center. ‘Fleet Street’ is used to mean Britain’s journalism center even though most newspaper companies have moved elsewhere. It is very commonly used for political reporting where the ‘White House’ means the President and ‘the Capitol’ means both the House of Representatives and the senate.

Non-fiction also uses metonymy in literature to represent national governments and associate particular industries with particular locations. Instead of referring to the Australian Government, a newspaper might refer to ‘Canberra’ and the European Union’s various commissions and parliaments are simply called ‘Brussels.’ Similarly, the American auto industry is known as ‘Detroit’ and its innovative computer industry as ‘Silicon Valley.’

Metonymy can be found throughout fiction in poetry, plays and novels. William Shakespeare made use of metonymy in many plays such as when in “Macbeth” a character ‘brandished steel.’ Steel is obviously used to mean a sword. In “Beowulf,” a character used ‘iron’ to mean a sword. Other metonymies for sword include blade and edge.

Purple prose specialist Edward Bulwer-Lytton created a famous metonymy in literature with the line ‘the pen is mightier than the sword.’ This is a double metonymy with the pen meaning words and the sword meaning violence. In Shakespeare’s “Julius Caesar,” the eponymous character asks his ‘friends, Romans, countrymen’ to ‘lend me your ears.’ Ears mean attention. Mary Shelley’s novel “Frankenstein’s Monster" itself became a metonymy where the term ‘Frankenstein’ is used to mean a man-made monstrosity.

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Discussion Comments

By umbra21 — On Nov 25, 2013

@bythewell - It's interesting because I've never really thought about this as a device, even though there are plenty of examples of metonymy in literature when you think about it. Even the habit of referring to the government by the name of the city it is in is just automatic to me.

By bythewell — On Nov 25, 2013

I actually had a conversation with my father about this a long time ago, although I don't think either of us knew the word metonymy or the definition of it.

Dad was talking about how there were just a few people in history who managed to become so famous that you could say their name as a reference to something else. We then tried to think of every single name that could be used like that.

The best one I came up with was Houdini. I mean, how cool is it that the man was such a genius he became synonymous with being able to escape.

Some other examples are Einstein, and, unfortunately, Hitler. It's kind of cool to know what the word for this is.

By KoiwiGal — On Nov 24, 2013

It annoys me so much when people use the term Frankenstein to mean the monster, when it is actually the name of the scientist.

Although, personally, I think the scientist was the real monster, so I guess it makes more sense to call someone that if you are trying to be insulting.

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