Metonymy Definition

It is a figure of speech that replaces the name of a thing with the name of something else with which it is closely associated. We can come across examples of metonymy both from literature and in everyday life.

Metonymy, Synecdoche and Metaphor

Metonymy is often confused with another figure of speech called synecdoche. They resemble each other but are not the same. Synecdoche refers to a thing by the name of one of its parts. For example, calling a car “a wheel” is a synecdoche. A part of a car i.e. “a wheel” stands for the whole car. In a metonymy, on the other hand, the word we use to describe another thing is closely linked to that particular thing, but is not a part of it. For example, “Crown” which means power or authority is a metonymy.

Metonymy is different from a metaphor. A metaphor draws resemblance between two different things as in “You are sunlight and I moon” – Sun And Moon from Miss Saigon. Sunlight (and moon) and human are two different things without any association but it attempts to describe one thing in terms of another based on a supposed similarity. Metonymy, however, develops relation on the grounds of close associations as in “The White House is concerned about terrorism.” The White House here represents the people who work in it.

Examples of Metonymy in Everyday Life

We use metonymy frequently in our everyday life. For a better understanding, let us observe a few metonymy examples:

  • England decides to keep check on immigration. (England refers to the government.)
  • The pen is mightier than the sword. (Pen refers to written words and sword to military force.)
  • The Oval Office was busy in work. (“The Oval Office” is a metonymy as it stands for people at work in the office.)
  • Let me give you a hand. (Hand means help.)

Metonymy Examples from Literature

Example #1

The given lines are from Shakespeare’s “Julies Caesar” Act I.

“Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears.”

Mark Anthony uses “ears” to say that he wants the people present there to listen to him attentively. It is a metonymy because the word “ears” replaces the concept of attention.

Example #2

This line is from Margaret Mitchell’s novel “Gone with the Wind”.

“I’m mighty glad Georgia waited till after Christmas before it secedes or it would have ruined the Christmas parties.”

Scarlett uses “Georgia” to point out everything that makes up the state: citizens, politician, government etc. It is a metonymy extremely common in the modern world, where a name of a country or state refers to a whole nation and its government. Thus, it renders brevity to the ideas.

Example #3

These lines are taken from “Out, Out” by Robert Frost.

“As he swung toward them holding up the hand
Half in appeal, but half as if to keep
The life from spilling”

In these lines, the expression “The life from spilling” is a metonymy that refers to spilling of blood. It develops a link between life and blood. The loss of too much blood means loss of life.

Example #4

These lines are from the poem “Yet Do I Marvel”.

“The little buried mole continues blind,
Why flesh that mirror Him must someday die,”

Countee Cullen uses “flesh” to represent human and questions God why we have to die when we are created in His likeness.

Example #5

These lines are from Lycidas written by John Milton.

“But now my oat proceeds,
And listens to the herald of the sea
That came in Neptune’s plea,
He asked the waves, and asked the felon winds,
What hard mishap hath doomed this gentle swain?”

In the above-mentioned lines, John Milton uses “oat” for a musical instrument made out of an oak-stalk. Thus, “oat” represents the song that the poet is composing next to the ocean.

Function of Metonymy

Generally, metonymy is used in developing literary symbolism i.e. it gives more profound meanings to otherwise common ideas and objects. By using metonymy, texts exhibit deeper or hidden meanings and thus drawing readers’ attention.  In addition, the use of metonymy helps achieve conciseness. For instance, “Rifles were guarding the gate” is more concise than “The guards with rifles in their hands were guarding the gate.”

Furthermore, metonymy, like other literary devices, is employed to add a poetic color to words to make them come to life. The simple ordinary things are described in a creative way to insert this “life” factor to the literary works.

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10 comments for “Metonymy

  1. ferdy
    November 24, 2015 at 8:04 am

    love your page, I use it in my classroom every year!

  2. Natalie
    December 13, 2015 at 4:27 pm

    This website helps me so much on my AP Lang homework!

  3. Susan
    December 15, 2015 at 8:12 am

    Resolved the definition of metonymy long before I left your page. The read was captivating and held me soaking it in till your last refrain. On to synecdoche!

  4. Al
    December 20, 2015 at 11:27 am

    The various example help clarify and add diversity in its usage.

  5. Ben Bee
    January 8, 2016 at 6:30 pm

    How is example #2 not a synecdoche?

    • Queenie
      February 4, 2016 at 4:40 pm

      A synecdoche refers to a part of the whole thing to represent the whole. In example 2 “Georgia” is not part of the states, gov, etc. but is used to represent them, so it is a metonymy. Hope this helps 😛

    • Richard
      February 7, 2016 at 8:48 am

      Synecdoche is when a PART of something represents the whole, as in calling a soldier a “boot” or a smart person a “brain”. In the example “Georgia” refers to everything about the state: the people, the government, etc. In my mind, a metonym personifies something that is actually an inanimate thing, as in, “The White House is concerned”, or “the city never sleeps”.

  6. Gracie
    February 2, 2016 at 10:13 am

    Great definition, simple and great to understand. Like the examples also, this website is very helpful (:

  7. Ashley
    February 12, 2016 at 2:58 pm

    I love your page… keep it up 😉

  8. Kat
    March 2, 2016 at 9:53 pm

    How is number 1 not a synecdoche? ears are a part of humans

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