I. What is a Metonymy?
The pen is mightier than the sword.
Although literally a pen has no power over a sword, we understand this phrase means that the written word and the sharing of ideas, are more powerful than fighting, or physical force. This phrase uses metonymy (pronounced mi-ton–uh-mee), which is a figure of speech that replaces words with related or associated words. A metonym is typically a part of a larger whole, for example, when we say “wheels,” we are figuratively referring to a “car” and not literally only the wheels. So, “wheels” are the associated part that represent the whole car. In the example above, we replaced “written words” with “the pen.”
The word metonymy is derived from the Greek phrase metōnymía meaning “a change of name.”
II. Examples of Metonymy
Hollywood has been releasing a surprising amount of sci-fi movies lately.
Hollywood is literally a district in Los Angeles, but because it has come to be linked to the entertainment business, celebrities, and movie-making, it is a common example of metonymy. Instead of listing various directors and films released in various areas, “Hollywood,” an associated word, will suffice.
The kitchen is coming along nicely
This example means that the renovation work on the kitchen is moving quickly and efficiently. Because the kitchen is the room being worked on, we can simplify the sentence using only “the kitchen” as a metonymic phrase.
Do you want a piece of my Danish?
Danish, originally an adjective for the full phrase Danish pastry, has come to replace the phrase as a metonymic word. On a daily basis, we take many metonymies for granted.
III. The Importance of Metonymy
Because associative and referential thinking are so natural and automatic to us, metonymies can be found and understood frequently in everyday language, literature, and pop culture. Metonymies allow for brevity by replacing lists with an associated category. They summarize complicated processes or programs with shortened phrases. Finally, they emphasize the most important and defining characteristics of a subject such as a “Margherita” for a “Margherita pizza.”
IV. Examples of Metonymy in Literature
From Richard Russo’s novel Straight Man:
As I drift back into sleep, I can’t help thinking that it’s a wonderful thing to be right about the world. To weigh the evidence, always incomplete, and correctly intuit the whole, to see the world in a grain of sand, to recognize its beauty, its simplicity, its truth.
In this example, the narrator is not literally talking about an understanding of the entire world, but an understanding of how life works in a particular society of the world. With metonymy, this idea can be presented as simply “the world.”
From Herman Melville’s Moby Dick:
You must know that in a settled and civilized ocean like our Atlantic, for example, some skippers think little of pumping their whole way across it; though of a still, sleepy night, should the officer of the deck happen to forget his duty in that respect, the probability would be that he and his shipmates would never again remember it, on account of all hands gently subsiding to the bottom.
In this example, “our Atlantic” is a shortened and personalized form of “the Atlantic Ocean.” “All hands” refer to all of the men working on the ship’s crew.
V. Examples of Metonymy in Pop Culture
First, listen to John Legend’s “All of Me”:
What would I do without your smart mouth?
Drawing me in, and you kicking me out
‘Cause all of me
Loves all of you
This song uses metonymy when the speaker wonders what he would do without “your smart mouth,” speaking to a woman through one of her defining features. In the chorus, instead of saying “I love you,” the speaker says “All of me loves all of you” to emphasize how strong and all-encompassing their love is.
For a second example, listen to “What Makes You Beautiful” by One Direction:
Don’t know what for,
You’re turning heads when you walk through the door
The girl “turns heads.” Literally, she turns the heads of people watching her as she walks by them. This use of metonymy is common in both song and conversation.
VI. Related Terms
For example, the overlap with synecdoche is so strong, many consider the two inseparable. Others argue that synecdoche is a specific type of metonymy. Synecdoche, like metonymy, is the replacement of a phrase with an associated phrase. Specifically, though, a part replaces a whole or a whole replaces a part.
Here are a few examples of synecdoche:
The White House released a statement last week.
In this example, an individual or set of individuals speaking on behalf of the White House, released a statement. With synecdoche, though, “The White House” is the only necessary information. The whole (The White House) replaces the part (individual employees of the White House).
Hey, look. Freckles is here!
Calling a person “Freckles” is a casual use of synecdoche. A defining attribute or part of the person (freckles) stands for the whole person.
Like metonymy, metalepsis involves the replacement of a phrase with another related phrase. Specifically, a literal phrase is replaced with a figurative phrase.
For example, a common adage is “Don’t count your chickens before they hatch.” This means that one must not expect or plan for something good before it has happened. A metaleptic use of this phrase would be:
I made the mistake of counting my chickens before they hatched.
A common figurative phrase for being guilty is being caught red-handed.
Here is an example of a metaleptic phrase using “red-handed”:
We know he’s red-handed, we just have to prove it.
Metonymies take on numerous forms, from simple metonymic phrases to more complicated metalepses.
VI. In Closing
Because associative thinking is so important in creative work, literary devices like metonymy are standard and commonly found. In literature and conversation alike, we express ideas thoughtfully and creatively by replacing them with associated or attributed phrases.