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Metonymy (pron.: // mi-TONN-ə-mee) is a figure of speech used in rhetoric in which a thing or concept is not called by its own name, but by the name of something intimately associated with that thing or concept.
For instance, "Hollywood" is used as a metonym (an instance of metonymy) for the U.S. film industry, because of the fame and cultural identity of Hollywood, a district of the city of Los Angeles, California, as the historical center of film studios and film stars. A building which houses the seat of government or the national capital is often used to represent the government of a country, such as "Westminster" (Parliament of the United Kingdom) or "Washington" (United States government).
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 used to name figures of speech, from ὄνῠμα, ónyma or ὄνομα, ónoma, "name." Metonymy also may be instructively contrasted with metaphor. Both figures involve the substitution of one term for another. In metaphor, this substitution is based on some specific similarity, whereas, in metonymy, the substitution is based on some understood association (contiguity).
Metonymy works by the contiguity (association) between two concepts, whereas metaphor works by the similarity between them. 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. Of course, metaphors reside in every metonymical phrase, and thus 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).
Here are some broad kinds of relationships where metonymy is frequently used:
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 of the above analyses most closely represents the way a listener interprets the expression, and it is possible that the phrase is analysed in different ways by different listeners, or even in different ways by the same listener at different times. Regardless, all three analyses yield the same interpretation; thus, metaphor and metonymy, though quite different in their mechanism, may work together seamlessly. For further analysis of idioms in which metaphor and metonymy work together, including an example very similar to the one given here, read this article entitled Metaphor and Metonymy in Contrast.
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 animal, as well as its meat; crown for the object, as well as the institution). Other cases wherein the meaning is polysemous, however, may turn out to be more metaphorical, e.g., eye as in the eye of the needle.
Metonymy also may refer to the rhetorical strategy of describing something indirectly, by referring to things contiguous to it, in either time or space. For example, in Jane Austen's novel Pride and Prejudice, the main character Elizabeth's change of heart and love for her suitor, Mr. Darcy, is first revealed when she sees his house:
They gradually ascended for half-a-mile, and then found themselves at the top of a considerable eminence, where the wood ceased, and the eye was instantly caught by Pemberley House, situated on the opposite side of a valley, into which the road with some abruptness wound. It was a large, handsome stone building, standing well on rising ground, and backed by a ridge of high woody hills; and in front, a stream of some natural importance was swelled into greater, but without any artificial appearance. Its banks were neither formal nor falsely adorned. Elizabeth was delighted. She had never seen a place for which nature had done more, or where natural beauty had been so little counteracted by an awkward taste.
Austen describes the house and Elizabeth's admiration for the estate at length as an indirect way of describing her feelings for Mr. Darcy. One could attempt to read this as an extended metaphor, but such a reading would break down as one tried to find a way to map the elements of her description (rising ground, swollen river) directly to attributes of her suitor. Furthermore, an extended metaphor typically highlights the author's ingenuity by maintaining an unlikely similarity to an unusual degree of detail.
In this description, on the other hand, although there are many elements of the description that we could transfer directly from the grounds to the suitor (natural beauty, lack of artifice), Austen is emphasizing the consistency of the domain of use rather than stretching to make a fresh comparison: each of the things she describes she associates with Darcy, and in the end we feel that Darcy is as beautiful as the place to which he is compared and that he belongs within it. Metonymy of this kind, thus, helps define a person or thing through a set of mutually reinforcing associations rather than through a comparison.
Advertising frequently uses this kind of metonymy, putting a product in close proximity to something desirable in order to make an indirect association that would seem crass if made with a direct comparison.
Synecdoche, wherein a specific part of something is used to refer to the whole, usually is understood as a specific kind of metonymy. Sometimes, however, people make an absolute distinction between a metonymy and a synecdoche, treating metonymy as different from, rather than inclusive of, synecdoche. There is a similar problem with the use of 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 and a metonym if A is commonly associated with B, but not part of its whole.
Thus, "The White House said" would be a metonymy for the president and his staff, because the White House (A) is not part of the president nor of his staff (B), but is closely associated with them. On the other hand, "20,000 hungry mouths to feed" is a synecdoche because mouths (A) are a part of the people (B) referred to.
One example of a simple sentence that displays synecdoche, metaphor, and metonymy is: "Fifty keels ploughed the deep", where "keels" is the synecdoche, as it names the whole (the ship) after a particular part (of the ship); "ploughed" is the metaphor, as it substitutes the concept of ploughing a field for moving through the ocean; and "the deep" is the metonym, as "depth" is an attribute associated with the ocean.
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