Metonymy

 Even if you have never heard of metonymy, you certainly will have heard examples of it in everyday conversation.

Metonymy Metonymy

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Table of contents

    Metonymy definition

    Metonymy is a type of figurative language or a figure of speech, that refers to a thing by the name of something associated with it. The word that replaces the original thing is called a metonym.

    Metonymy examples

    In this section, we’ll look at examples of metonymy. As metonymy can be quite a difficult concept to grasp, we will offer some brief explanations along the way.

    Metonyms for people and objects

    One of the most famous examples is “the crown” as a metonym for the monarch (a king or queen – for the sake of this example we’ll say there’s a queen in charge). If somebody was to say, “I swore allegiance to the Crown”, this doesn’t literally mean that they pledged their loyalty to a piece of fancy headwear – really they are saying, “I swore allegiance to the Queen”. A crown is something closely associated with a queen, which is why you can replace the word “queen” with “crown” and we still understand what it means.

    Have you ever heard anybody refer to businesspeople as “suits”? An example of this could be, “I’m going for a meeting with the suits from head office”. In this sentence, “suits” is a metonym for businesspeople.

    Ever seen an action movie where somebody mentions “a hired gun”? They’re most likely referring to a person associated with a gun: an assassin.

    Some metonyms are so common that we barely even notice them. For example, if I asked you, “What’s your favourite dish?” I wouldn’t expect you to reply, “bone china” or “porcelain”! Most people would understand the question as, “What’s your favourite meal?” – therefore, “dish” is a metonym for meal.

    Another subtle example of metonymy is if I asked, “Have you heard the new Billie Eilish?” What I really mean is, “Have you heard the new Billie Eilish song?” It’s common to refer to an artist’s work by their name; another example of this would be, “I’ve got a Picasso hanging up in my living room”.

    There are a lot of slang terms for “money”, but one of the most common (and one that works as a metonym) is “bread” (or sometimes “dough”); for example, “I need a job so I can start making some bread”, or, “I need a job so I can start making some dough”. Bread (which is made from dough) is something closely associated with money, as we all know that having money means that you can eat!

    Metonymy, bread as a metonym for money, StudySmarterFig. 1 - Bread = money.

    Metonyms aren’t limited to just nouns; they can also be verbs or any other type of word, as long as there is a close association. For example, if I said, “My ride is parked outside”, “ride” would be a metonym for car. This works even though “ride” is a verb because there is a close association – you “ride” in a car.

    Metonyms for abstract concepts

    You can also use metonymy to refer to abstract concepts, ideas and emotions. For example, “from the cradle to the grave” is a common expression meaning “from birth until death”; in this phrase, “the cradle” is a metonym for birth, and “the grave” is a metonym for death. Similarly, there are parts of the world known as “cradles of civilization”; this phrase refers to the fact that early cultures developed in these places; they are birthplaces of civilization.

    “Heart” can be used as a metonym for several things. The most obvious meaning is love, as in, “I gave you my heart”; we understand this as meaning, “I gave you my love”. Also, if you “put your heart” into something, it can mean that you have put passion, energy, or effort into it. “Heart” works as a metonym in both contexts.

    Metonymy, Heart = love, StudySmarterFig. 2 - "Heart" is a common metonym for "love".

    Examples of metonymy: a recap

    MetonymMeaningExample phrase
    CrownMonarch (king/queen)I swore allegiance to the Crown.
    SuitBusinesspersonI’m going for a meeting with the suits from head office.
    GunAssassinIn his new movie, Keanu Reeves plays the part of a hired gun.
    DishMealWhat’s your favourite dish?
    Billie EilishBillie Eilish songHave you heard the new Billie Eilish?
    PicassoPicasso paintingI’ve got a Picasso hanging up in my living room.
    Bread/doughMoneyI need a job so I can start making some bread/dough.
    RideCarMy ride is parked outside.
    CradleBirth/birthplaceFrom the cradle to the grave / This region is a cradle of civilization.
    GraveDeathFrom the cradle to the grave.
    HeartLoveI gave you my heart.
    HeartPassion/energy/effortI put my heart into my work.

    Metonymy vs synecdoche – what’s the difference?

    Before we start, an important side note:

    Some people class synecdoche as a type of metonymy, while others class it as a separate thing altogether. Not even the experts can fully agree on this though! For the sake of clarity, we have stuck to the OED (Oxford English Dictionary) definition, categorising synecdoche as separate from metonymy. We would recommend asking your tutor for their opinion on this. Regardless, this section will help you understand what distinguishes synecdoche.

    Synecdoche is similar to metonymy, but there are some key differences. This may seem complex at first, but bear with us and by the end of this section you will be able to tell them apart.

    Synecdoche is also a type of figurative language, but it is different from metonymy in that it either:

    • Refers to a thing by the name of something that is part of it, OR
    • Refers to a thing by the name of something that it is part of.

    In other words, it is a part that refers to the whole, or a whole that refers to the part.

    Examples of synecdoche as a part that refers to the whole:

    • Check out my new wheels.

    “Wheels” = car (wheels are PART of a car).

    • I bought myself some new threads.

    “Threads” = clothes (threads are a PART of clothes).

    • I’ve got mouths to feed.

    “Mouths” = people (mouths are a PART of people).

    Examples of synecdoche as a whole that refers to the part:

    • Germany won the world cup.

    “Germany” = The Germany football team (Germany is a WHOLE that includes the football team).

    • I was pulled over by the police.

    “The police” = police officers (the police is a WHOLE that includes those specific police officers).

    • Washington is negotiating new trade agreements.

    “Washington” = the US government (Washington is a WHOLE that includes the US government).

    So how is synecdoche different to metonymy? Both refer to a thing by the name of something else, right? Yes, but there is a subtle difference: metonymy refers to a thing by the name of something associated with it. Synecdoche refers to a thing by the name of something that is part of it, OR something that it is part of. Think of metonymy as using symbols to represent a thing, whereas synecdoche either zooms in to a part of it or zooms out to show what it is part of.

    You might be thinking, “Isn’t a crown part of a monarch?” or “Isn’t a suit part of a businessperson?” Well, sort of, but as they are not physically attached to the person in question (they are costumes or adornments) they are still classed as metonyms.

    If you ever find yourself confused as to whether something is a metonym or a synecdoche, ask yourself:

    • Is it a part of the thing, or something that is physically attached? If so it is a synecdoche.
    • Is it something bigger (such as a country, city, building or authority) that contains the thing? If so it is a synecdoche.
    • Is it a symbol (such as an object or item of clothing) that represents the thing? If so it is a metonym.
    • Is it a verb (such as an action or occurrence), or something else associated with the thing? If so it is a metonym.

    Metonymy vs metaphor – what’s the difference?

    Metaphor, another type of figurative language, is also easily confused with metonymy. Here’s a simple way to differentiate the two:

    • Metonymy is about association; it refers to one thing as another thing to show that there is a link between them.
    • Metaphor is about comparison; it refers to one thing as another thing to make us see the similarities between them.

    Let’s go back to the example of a car; we will use the same sentence from earlier on and then modify it so that it is a metaphor.

    My ride is parked outside.

    “Ride” is an association with a car; you “ride” in a car. Therefore, this is an example of metonymy.

    My tin can is parked outside.

    A tin can is not something commonly associated with a car. In this sentence, the speaker is drawing a comparison between their car and a tin can; both are objects made of metal, and the speaker seems to be telling us that their car is cheap and flimsy, like a tin can. This imaginative comparison is an example of metaphor.

    Metonymy, synecdoche or metaphor?

    If you’re still struggling to determine whether something is metonymy, synecdoche or metaphor, don’t worry, we’re here to help! Follow the flowchart below to find your answer:

    Focus on the word, or part of the phrase, that refers to a thing by the name of something else.

    E.g., “I have a meeting with the suits”; “I wonder how England will do in the World Cup”; “You are my sunshine”.

    Now, let’s begin…

    Metonymy, Metonymy synecdoche or metaphor help, StudySmarterFig. 3 - Figurative language flowchart.

    Metonymy - Key takeaways

    • Metonymy is a type of figurative language, or a figure of speech, that refers to a thing by the name of something associated with it. The word that replaces the original thing is called a metonym.
    • A metonym works because it is the name of something closely associated with the thing it is replacing. For example, “dish” is closely associated with “meal”, so it works as a metonym for meal in the sentence, “What’s your favourite dish?”
    • Metonymy is different from synecdoche; a metonym is something associated with the thing it refers to, whereas a synecdoche is either something that is part of the thing or that the thing is part of. For example, wheels are part of a car, and so “wheels” works as a synecdoche for car in the sentence, “Check out my new wheels”.
    • Metonymy is also different from metaphor; metonymy is about association, whereas metaphor is about comparison. For example, if you describe a car as a “tin can”, it is a metaphor, as tin cans are not typically associated with cars, but with a bit of imagination, you can see some similarities.
    Frequently Asked Questions about Metonymy

    What is metonymy?

    Metonymy is the act of referring to a thing by the name of something closely associated with it. The word that replaces the original thing is called a metonym.

    What is an example of metonymy?

    An example of metonymy is the sentence, “I gave you my heart”. Most people would understand this to mean, “I gave you my love”. The word “heart” is a metonym for love, as it is a closely associated thing that replaces the word.

    Is metonymy a figure of speech?

    Metonymy is a figure of speech, or a type of figurative language. This means that it is a non-literal way of getting a point across.

    What is an example of metonymy in literature?

    An example of metonymy in literature is the famous line, “The pen is mightier than the sword”, which originally appeared in Edward Bulwer-Lytton’s play, Richelieu. “The pen” is a metonym for the written word, and “the sword” is a metonym for physical violence.

    What is the difference between metonymy and synecdoche?

    Metonymy refers to a thing by the name of something associated with it. Synecdoche refers to a thing by the name of something that is part of it, OR something that it is part of.

    Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

    True or false?Metonymy and metaphor are the same thing

    True or false?Metonymy is not limited to people and objects; it can also refer to abstract concepts.

    In the famous quote, “The pen is mightier than the sword”, what is “the sword” a metonym for?

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