Metonymy Explained

Metonymy, like colloquialisms, is something most of us use everyday without a second thought because it has become so embedded in our speech habits. When speaking about the tech industry, we say “Silicon Valley” or when speaking about the American film industry, we say “Hollywood.” While many of you may have been unaware of it, both of these phrases are examples of metonymy.

What is Metonymy?

Metonymy is a literary device that substitutes a related word for another.. A more common definition states metonymy is when the whole of something is referred to by a specific part of the whole or something related to the whole. Metonymy may be used to create vivid imagery in written text. An example of metonymy is when a king is referred to as “the crown.”

For a better understanding of metonymy, watch this useful video from OSU:

How to pronounce Metonymy?

Metonymy is pronounced “me·ton·y·my” from the Greek “metōnymía” meaning to “a change of name.”

When do writers use Metonymy?

Writers like to use metonymy in their work because it is a way to elevate their text. By referring to something indirectly through word substitution, writers can create vivid imagery to go along with their words. Other reasons metonymy is popular among writers include:

  • It allows them to express themselves more creatively
  • Metonymy makes single words or phrases more powerful, and
  • It allows writers to say what they want concisely.

Some Examples of Metonymy in Everyday Life

We use metonymy in everyday life, often without even realizing it. Like colloquialisms, metonymies are part of our collective speech. Even if we do not speak them personally, we will probably hear at least one spoken metonymy over the course of the day.

  • The theater scenes in London and New York, respectively, are commonly referred to as “the West End” and “Broadway” while New York, the city, is often called “the Big Apple.
  • When people refer to “Wall Street,” it is almost never in reference to the actual street. Rather, the term is used to refer to the American financial sector as a whole.
  • The Indian film industry, as well as the distinct style of clothing worn by industry insiders, is known as “Bollywood” after having been modeled after Hollywood.
  • Americans refer to the Office of the President as the “White House” or the “Oval Office.”

The list could literally go on-and-on, but we see the point.

What are the Subtypes of  Metonymy?

  • Choose a word or phrase that is closely associated with the concept you want to convey.
  • Make sure the word or phrase you choose is widely recognized and understood.
  • Use the word or phrase in place of the concept you want to convey.
  • Use the word or phrase consistently throughout your writing.
  • Avoid using too many metonymies in one piece of writing, as it can become confusing.
  • Be aware of any potential double meanings that may arise from using a metonymy.

What are the Subtypes of Metonymy

There are two subtypes of metonymy that are so useful they have earned their own entries elsewhere. Synecdoche and metalypsis. Since each is referred to separately, and rarely in conjunction with its parent device, both are frequently mistaken for the parental umbrella term metonymy. Their key differences are outlined below.

Synecdoche – When the whole of something is referred to a single part. Example: my car = my “wheels.”

Metalypsis – Created when two words, seemingly unrelated, with different meanings are placed next to each other to create a new word or phrase with an entirely new meaning. Example: virtual + reality = “virtual reality”

Some also include polysemy as a subtype of metonymy, but it has been omitted to avoid unnecessary confusion as its explanation is vague and far too similar to other common literary devices.

Metonymy in Literature and Poetry 📚

We may not even notice how common it is to metonymy in everyday life or in literature until it has been pointed out to us. Below are some of the most well-known examples of metonymy in literature and poetry.

One of the most famous examples of metonymy you will ever hear comes from Shakespeare’s play, Julius Caesar when Antony says, “Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears!” In this example, because Antony wants the people to listen to him, he refers to man as a pair of ears.

Robert Frost, “Out, Out” –

“Half in appeal, but half as if to keep

The life from spilling

In this couplet, Frost uses spilling to refer to blood since life cannot literally be spilled that which sustains life can be spilt in excess.

In “Ode to a Nightingale,” John Keats writes, “O, for a draught of vintage” where vintage has replaced the word “wine.”

Metonymy in Song 🎧

While definitely present, metonymy in song lyrics is a little more difficult to identify. Having said that, it can be done. Sometimes with a little help. Check out the video below from the band, We are the Crowd and their song, “Manners.”

A line from the song: “Along with wolves like you, trust is counting sheep.” In this line, the vocalist uses “wolves” to refer to another human person.

Metonymy in Movies and TV 🎥

Hollywood (Notice what we did there?) uses metonymy all the time in film and TV. The examples listed here are a mere sampling.

  • In West Wing, both the series title and the repeated references to the “Oval Office” refer to the Office of the President.
  • In Top Gun, whenever the characters refer to the Pentagon, they are referring to the U.S.’s main military offices.

The there’s also a list of TV titles including but not limited to:

  • House of Cards
  • Golden Girls
  • Rags to Riches

Sometimes Confused With, Yet Similar to Metonymy 👥

So as you may have realized by now, proper usage of metonymy may seem easy, but as with most literary tools, it’s a little more complex than it seems. The application of metonymy can be a little tricky as in this example from Elon Musk: I’m a Silicon Valley guy. I just think people from Silicon Valley can do anything. However, what everyone can agree on is that metonymy is very similar to metaphor. There is still a bit of contention as to whether synecdoche and metalepsis are subtypes of metonymy or each their own thing. Below, each have been explained in a little more detail.

  • Metaphor – A figure of speech that compares two things in a way that cannot be literally true. While often confused for metonymy, a metaphor substitutes another word or thing for something else in order to compare the two things.
  • Synecdoche – A specific type of metonymy created when the whole of something is referred to a single part. Example: my car = my “wheels.”
  • Metalepsis – Another specific type of metonymy that is created when two words, seemingly unrelated, with different meanings are placed next to each other to create a new word or phrase with an entirely new meaning. Example: “lead” + “foot” = “lead foot”