Metonymy is a figure of speech in which one object or idea takes the place of another with which it has a close association. In fact, metonymy means “change of name.” As a literary device, it is a way of replacing an object or idea with something related to it instead of stating what is actually meant. Metonymy enables writers to express a word or thought in a different way by using a closely related word or thought. Therefore, this is a method for writers to vary their expression and produce an effect for the reader.
Silver screen is an excellent use of metonymy. This phrase is a figure of speech, meaning it’s used for effect rather than literal meaning. Also, it is a substitute concept for movies, movie theaters, etc. “Screen” is related to the way movies were traditionally shown (or screened) in a theater. In addition, “silver” is associated with original black and white films and the glitter of Hollywood. As metonymy, it can take the place of words such as movie, theater, film, etc. In this way, words such as movie or film aren’t overused.
Common Examples of Metonymy
Here are some examples of metonymy that may be found in everyday expression:
- Hollywood (represents associations with the movie industry)
- Turf (represents associations with area of residence or expertise)
- Feds (represents associations with government law enforcement)
- Press (represents associations with news organizations)
- Breeze (represents associations with something that is simple, straightforward, or easy)
- Broadway (represents associations with New York drama productions and stage fame)
- Coast (represents associations with seaside, ocean area, regions of land near water)
- Booze (represents associations with alcohol or liquor)
- Academics (represents associations with school, college, university, classes, or studying)
- Management (represents associations with administration, leadership, or person in charge of something)
Usage of Metonymy in Speech or Writing
Here are some examples of metonymy that may be found in everyday writing or conversation:
- I need to decide if I will go Greek in college next year. (Greek is metonymy for sorority or fraternity membership)
- I met him at the reception when he took me for a spin during a slow song. (Spin is metonymy for dance)
- Joe’s new ride was expensive. (Ride is metonymy for car)
- When I came to visit, my friend offered me a cup. (Cup is metonymy for a beverage such as tea or coffee)
- I wish he would keep his nose out of the plans. (Nose is metonymy for interest or attention)
- During illness, fluids are often essential for recovery. (Fluids is metonymy for hydrating substances)
- While I’m sleeping, my dog tries to steal the covers. (Covers is metonymy for bed linens, blankets, quilts, etc.)
- This class is more intelligent and engaged than the last one. (Class is metonymy for a group of students)
- Today at lunch, I sat with the jocks. (Jocks is metonymy for athletes)
- Next week, my boyfriend and I are headed to the altar. (Altar is metonymy for getting married)
Think you haven’t heard of any famous metonymy? Here are some well-known and recognizable examples of this figure of speech:
- “Rags to Riches” (American television series)
- “The Crown” (Netflix television series)
- “He Got Game” (American film)
- “Hurtin’ (on the Bottle)” (song, Margo Price)
- “Guys and Dolls” (American stage musical)
- “In the end, it’s not the years in your life that count. It’s the life in your years.” (Abraham Lincoln)
- “The circus arrives without warning.” (Erin Morgenstern)
- “Yesterday’s gone on down the river…” (Larry McMurtry)
- “But I, being poor, have only my dreams” (W.B. Yeats)
- “Be the rainbow in someone’s cloud.” (Maya Angelou)
Differences Between Metonymy, Synecdoche, and Metaphor
Metonymy is often confused with synecdoche. These literary devices are similar but can be differentiated. Synecdoche is a figure of speech in which a part of something is used to signify the whole. For example, a common synecdoche for marriage proposal is to ask for someone’s “hand” in marriage. Of course, the “hand” in this case is just the part that signifies the whole person who is receiving the proposal.
Metonymy is a figure of speech in which one word is used to replace another to which it is closely linked. However, unlike synecdoche, it is not a part of the word or idea it represents.
Both metonymy and synecdoche are related to metaphor, which is also a figure of speech. As a literary device, the purpose of metaphor is to compare two unlike things without using the words “like” or “as.” There are also comparative aspects within metonymy and synecdoche, so the differences between these three devices can be subtle. One way to differentiate metaphor is that it’s used to show similarity between two separate things that appear unrelated.
Comparative Examples of Metonymy, Synecdoche, and Metaphor
Here are examples of these literary devices that illustrate the subtle differences:
- “Life is a climb, but the view is great.” This is an example of Metaphor. “Life” is being compared to “a climb.” Though these two concepts are different, they are considered interchangeable in this example due to the comparison.
- “There is a mountain of work on my desk.” This is an example of metonymy. “Mountain” is used here as a word that would be related to “pile.” Though the word “mountain” is different than “pile,” they are both associated with one another.
- “Today, I hit my job peak.” This is an example of Synecdoche. “Peak” is used here to indicate the highest point of the speaker’s career experience. The “peak” is part of the whole.
Overall, as a literary device, metonymy enhances literary symbolism. Replacing words and ideas with others that are closely associated with the original words and ideas allows the reader a more profound way of considering the meaning of an image or concept that the writer is trying to convey. In addition, these figures of speech enhance literary expression and expand description in order to avoid repetitious phrasing.
Here are instances in which it’s effective to use metonymy in writing:
Demonstrate Linguistic Skill
It takes linguistic skill to create successful metonymy. For example, not every word associated with another is effective in replacing the original word or idea. When writers use metonymy as a literary device, they must consider what the reader’s understanding is of the relationship between the words and phrases.
For example, the phrase “play some tunes” is metonymy for turning on the radio or other devices that play music. In this case, most readers would understand that “tunes” is related to a variety of musical pieces such as songs.Therefore, this is an effective use of metonymy. However, if a writer were to use “play some keys” as metonymy for turning on music, this would be an ineffective use of the literary device. Most readers would not understand a strong enough connection between the word “keys” and musical songs.
As a figure of speech, metonymy can be used to create imagery for a reader. This allows the writer an expansion of expression in order to convey thoughts and ideas to the reader. For example, consider the use of the word “heavy” as metonymy in the following sentence. “Mary decided she would let her husband be the heavy in giving out the children’s punishments.” In this case, “heavy” is a figure of speech for someone who is an enforcer or delivering unwelcome news. However, “heavy” also creates images of power and burden, which enhances the meaning of the metonymy in the sentence.
Avoid Word and/or Idea Repetition
In addition, metonymy as a literary device allows a writer to expand description. This functions as a means of avoiding word and/or idea repetition. If a closely related word can be substituted for another and retain the meaning of the original, this is a means of gaining and keeping the reader’s attention and interest. Conversely, repetitious phrasing can result in a reader losing interest or disengaging with the material.
Examples of Metonymy in Literature
Metonymy is an effective literary device. Here are some examples of metonymy and their interpretations in well-known literary works:
Example 1: A Midsummer Night’s Dream (William Shakespeare)
And as imagination bodies forth
The forms of things unknown, the poet’s pen
Turns them to shapes and gives to airy nothing
A local habitation and a name.
In this example, Shakespeare uses metonymy with the phrase “poet’s pen.” The poet, of course, is actually producing the imaginative creation. The poet forms “things unknown” into words with “a name.” However, metonymy in this passage creates an image for the reader that the source of poetry is the pen rather than the poet. Therefore, the literary device gives the impression that the tool has mastery of the artist rather than the artist mastering the tool.
Example 2: All’s Well that Ends Well (William Shakespeare)
I know a man that had this trick of melancholy sold a goodly manor for a song.
In this line, Shakespeare uses “song” as a figure of speech indicating an inexpensive or cheap price assigned to something of value. Here, the word song is associated with a street performer being paid small sums for singing. The idea that a man sold his “goodly manor” for a “song” reflects various interpretations of the line. Either the man either didn’t properly or adequately value his manor, no longer wanted it, or was unaware of it’s full value.
The metonymy “song” is also a clever manner of expression in this line when compared to the phrase “trick of melancholy.” In general, “song” has positive and happy connotations, which would be the opposite of melancholy.
Example 3: Bartleby the Scrivener (Herman Melville)
As I afterwards learned, the poor scrivener, when told that he must be conducted to the Tombs, offered not the slightest obstacle, but in his pale, unmoving way, silently acquiesced.
In this quote from his short story, Melville utilizes the “Tombs” as metonymy. The “Tombs,” in this case, is another way to express a detention center in New York where people awaited their court trial and subsequent conviction or acquittal for crimes. Though Bartleby’s character has not been convicted of a crime, he is “conducted” to the Tombs as if he is facing his death sentence.
Described as pale, unmoving, and silent, Bartelby resembles a living corpse. Melville’s use of metonymy with the Tombs is clever in underscoring two plot elements. The first is that Bartleby is to be interned in prison. The second is foreshadowing that he is to be interred in a “tomb” simultaneously. Therefore, Bartleby’s character is literally and figuratively entombed through the use of this literary device.