The words metonymy and metonym come from the Greek μετωνυμία, metōnymía, "a change of name", from μετά, metá, "after, beyond", and -ωνυμία, -ōnymía, a suffix that names figures of speech, from ὄνυμα, ónyma or ὄνομα, ónoma, "name".
Metonymy and related figures of speech are common in everyday speech and writing. Synecdoche and metalepsis are considered specific types of metonymy. Polysemy, multiple meanings of a single word or phrase, sometimes results from relations of metonymy. Both metonymy and metaphor involve the substitution of one term for another. In metaphor, this substitution is based on some specific analogy between two things, whereas in metonymy the substitution is based on some understood association or contiguity.
In addition to its use in everyday speech, metonymy is a figure of speech in some poetry and in much rhetoric. Greek and Latin scholars of rhetoric made significant contributions to the study of metonymy.
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Synecdoche, in which a specific part of something is used to refer to the whole, is usually understood as a specific kind of metonymy. Sometimes an absolute distinction is made between a metonymy and a synecdoche, treating metonymy as different from, rather than inclusive of, synecdoche. There is a similar problem with the terms simile and metaphor.
When the distinction is made, it is the following: when "A" is used to refer to "B", it is a synecdoche if A is a component of B or if B is a component of A, and a metonym if A is commonly associated with B but not part of its whole or a whole of its part. Thus, "20,000 hungry mouths to feed" is a synecdoche because mouths (A) are a part of the people (B) referred to. "Australia votes" is also a synecdoche because Australia is a whole of which the people who voted are a part. On the other hand, "The White House said" is metonymy, but not synecdoche, for the president and his staff, because, although the White House is associated with the president and his staff, the building is not a part of the people.
Similarly, metalepsis is closely related to metonymy, and is sometimes understood as a specific kind of metonymy. Metalepsis is a figure of speech in which a word or a phrase from figurative speech is used in a new context. The new figure of speech refers to an existing one. For example, in the idiom "lead foot", meaning someone who drives fast, lead is a heavy substance, and a heavy foot on the accelerator pedal would cause a vehicle to go quickly. The use of "lead foot" to describe a person follows the intermediate substitution of "lead" for "heavy". The figure of speech is a "metonymy of a metonymy".
The concept of metonymy also informs the nature of polysemy, i.e., how the same phonological form (word) has different semantic mappings (meanings). If the two meanings are unrelated, as in the word pen meaning both writing instrument and enclosure, they are considered homonyms. Within logical polysemies, a large class of mappings may be considered to be a case of metonymic transfer (e.g., "chicken" for the bird, as well as its meat; "crown" for the object, as well as the institution). Other cases where the meaning is polysemous, however, may turn out to be more metaphorical, e.g., "eye" as in the "eye of the needle".
Metonymy works by the contiguity (association) between two concepts, whereas the term "metaphor" is based upon their analogous similarity. When people use metonymy, they do not typically wish to transfer qualities from one referent to another as they do with metaphor. There is nothing press-like about reporters or crown-like about a monarch, but "the press" and "the crown" are both common metonyms. Some uses of figurative language may be understood as both metonymy and metaphor; for example, the relationship between "a crown" and a "king" could be interpreted metaphorically (i.e., the king, like his gold crown, could be seemingly stiff yet ultimately malleable, over-ornate, and consistently immobile).
Two examples using the term "fishing" help clarify the distinction. The phrase "to fish pearls" uses metonymy, drawing from "fishing" the idea of taking things from the ocean. What is carried across from "fishing fish" to "fishing pearls" is the domain of metonymy. In contrast, the metaphorical phrase "fishing for information" transfers the concept of fishing into a new domain. If someone is "fishing" for information, we do not imagine that the person is anywhere near the ocean; rather, we transpose elements of the action of fishing (waiting, hoping to catch something that cannot be seen, probing) into a new domain (a conversation). Thus, metaphor works by presenting a target set of meanings and using them to suggest a similarity between items, actions, or events in two domains, whereas metonymy calls up or references a specific domain (here, removing items from the sea).
Sometimes, metaphor and metonymy may both be at work in the same figure of speech, or one could interpret a phrase metaphorically or metonymically. For example, the phrase "lend me your ear" could be analyzed in a number of ways. One could imagine the following interpretations:
It is difficult to say which analyses above most closely represents the way a listener interprets the expression, and it is possible that different listeners analyse the phrase in different ways, or even in different ways at different times. Regardless, all three analyses yield the same interpretation. Thus, metaphor and metonymy, though different in their mechanism, work together seamlessly.
Here are some broad kinds of relationships where metonymy is frequently used:
A place is often used as a metonym for a government or other official institutions, for example, Brussels for the institutions of the European Union, The Hague for the International Court of Justice or International Criminal Court, Nairobi for the government of Kenya, the White House and Capitol Hill for the executive and legislative branches, respectively, of the United States federal government, or Foggy Bottom for the US State Department. A place can represent an entire industry: for instance Wall Street is often used metonymically to describe the entire U.S. financial and corporate banking sector. Common nouns and phrases can also be metonyms: red tape can stand for bureaucracy, whether or not that bureaucracy actually uses red tape to bind documents. In Commonwealth realms, The Crown is a metonym for the state in all its aspects.
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Western culture studied poetic language and deemed it to be rhetoric. A. Al-Sharafi supports this concept in his book Textual Metonymy, "Greek rhetorical scholarship at one time became entirely poetic scholarship." Philosophers and rhetoricians thought that metaphors were the primary figurative language used in rhetoric. Metaphors served as a better means to attract the audience’s attention because the audience had to read between the lines in order to get an understanding of what the speaker was trying to say. Others did not think of metonymy as a good rhetorical method because metonymy did not involve symbolism. Al-Sharafi explains, "This is why they undermined practical and purely referential discourse because it was seen as banal and not containing anything new, strange or shocking."
Greek scholars contributed to the definition of metonymy. For example, Isocrates worked to define the difference between poetic language and non-poetic language by saying that, "Prose writers are handicapped in this regard because their discourse has to conform to the forms and terms used by the citizens and to those arguments which are precise and relevant to the subject-matter." In other words, Isocrates proposes here that metaphor is a distinctive feature of poetic language because it conveys the experience of the world afresh and provides a kind of defamiliarisation in the way the citizens perceive the world. Democritus described metonymy by saying, "Metonymy, that is the fact that words and meaning change." Aristotle discussed different definitions of metaphor, regarding one type as what we know to be metonymy today.
Latin scholars also had an influence on metonymy. The treatise Rhetorica ad Herennium states metonymy as, "the figure which draws from an object closely akin or associated an expression suggesting the object meant, but not called by its own name." The author describes the process of metonymy to us saying that we first figure out what a word means. We then figure out that word’s relationship with other words. We understand and then call the word by a name that it is associated with. "Perceived as such then metonymy will be a figure of speech in which there is a process of abstracting a relation of proximity between two words to the extent that one will be used in place of another." Cicero viewed metonymy as more of a stylish rhetorical method and described it as being based on words, but motivated by style.
Metonymy became important in French structuralism through the work of Roman Jakobson. In his 1956 essay "The Metaphoric and Metonymic Poles", Jakobson relates metonymy to the linguistic practice of [syntagmatic] combination and to the literary practice of realism. He explains:
The primacy of the metaphoric process in the literary schools of Romanticism and symbolism has been repeatedly acknowledged, but it is still insufficiently realized that it is the predominance of metonymy which underlies and actually predetermines the so-called 'realistic' trend, which belongs to an intermediary stage between the decline of Romanticism and the rise of symbolism and is opposed to both. Following the path of contiguous relationships, the realistic author metonymically digresses from the plot to the atmosphere and from the characters to the setting in space and time. He is fond of synecdochic details. In the scene of Anna Karenina's suicide Tolstoy's artistic attention is focused on the heroine's handbag; and in War and Peace the synecdoches "hair on the upper lip" or "bare shoulders" are used by the same writer to stand for the female characters to whom these features belong.
Metonyms can also be wordless. For example, Roman Jakobson argued that cubist art relied heavily on nonlinguistic metonyms, while surrealist art relied more on metaphors. A Picasso cubist painting of a guitar might show five parallel strings without the wood frame on which they are mounted; the strings are a metonym for the guitar.
Lakoff and Turner argued that all words are metonyms: “Words stand for the concepts they express.” Some artists have used actual words as metonyms in their paintings. For example, Miró’s 1925 painting "Photo: This is the Color of My Dreams" has the word “photo” to represent the image of his dreams. This painting comes from a series of paintings called peintures-poésies (paintings-poems) which reflect Miró’s interest in dreams and the subconscious and the relationship of words, images, and thoughts. Picasso, in his 1911 painting "Pipe Rack and Still Life on Table" inserts the word “Ocean” rather than painting an ocean: These paintings by Miró and Picasso are, in a sense, the reverse of a rebus: the word stands for the picture, instead of the picture standing for the word.
Dreams can use metonyms, in which one person or object is substituted for another. A man had a dream in which he had “sex with his daughter,” which was metonymy for “incest in general.” He never had sex with his daughter, but when he was a teenager, he raped his cousin but never told anyone. The dream metonym, by replacing the cousin with the daughter, had an implied message: I can try to avoid the guilt feelings toward my cousin, but if it were my daughter I had raped, it would be harder or impossible.
Ryan dreamed: “I found these coins that were like Susan B. Anthony dollars and like English money – coins that can be worth more than paper money. One was worth $1. Another was worth $8.” Most Susan B. Anthony dollars are worth $1. It was unclear why one was worth $8 in the dream. Ryan was very conflicted about money; he saw it as a symbol of male potency. He usually felt that he did not have enough money and found it difficult to be generous. Yet at the time of the dream, he had more money than his partner, Len. For the very first time in their 20-year relationship, he offered to help Len out with money. Ryan had $2,000 in the bank and offered to “excuse” $800 of Len’s expenses (the eight-dollar coin in the dream). The $8 was a metonym of $800; the coin that was worth more than its face value was a symbol of Ryan’s enhanced financial condition and his overall self-esteem.
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