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metonymy, figure of speech in which an attribute of a thing or something closely related to it is substituted for the thing itself. Thus, "sweat" can mean "hard labor," and "Capitol Hill" represents the U.S. Congress.
In rhetoric, metonymy is the use of a word for a concept or object associated with the concept/object originally denoted by the word.

Metonymy may be instructively contrasted with metaphor. Both figures involve the substitution of one term for another. In metaphor, this substitution is based on similarity, while in metonymy, the substitution is based on contiguity.

Metaphor example: That man is a pig (using pig instead of unhygienic person. An unhygienic person is like a pig, but there is no contiguity between the two).

Metonymy example: The White House supports the bill (using White House instead of President. The President is not like the White House, but there is contiguity between them).

In cognitive linguistics, metonymy refers to the use of a single characteristic to identify a more complex entity and is one of the basic characteristics of cognition. It is common for people to take one well-understood or easy-to-perceive aspect of something and use that aspect to stand either for the thing as a whole or for some other aspect or part of it.

Metonymy is attested in cognitive processes underlying language (e.g. the infant's association of the nipple with milk). Objects that appear strongly in a single context emerge as cognitive labels for the whole concept, thus fueling linguistic labels such as "sweat" to refer to hard work that might produce it.

The word metonymy is derived from the Greek μετωνυμία (metōnymia) "a change of name", from μετά- (meta-) "beyond/changed" and -ωνυμία (-onymia), a suffix used to name figures of speech, from ὄνομα (onoma), "name" (OED)).

Metonymy compared to metaphor in cognitive science and linguistics

Metaphor and metonymy are both figures of speech where one word may be used in place of another. However, especially in cognitive science and linguistics, the two figures of speech work very differently. Roman Jakobson argued that they represent two fundamentally different ways of processing language; he noted that different forms of aphasia affected the ability to interpret the two figures differently ().

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.

Two examples using the term "fishing" help make the distinction clear (example drawn from Dirven, 1996). 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 usage and the associations with the ocean and boats, but we understand the phrase in spite of rather than because of the literal meaning of fishing: we know you do not use a fishing rod or net to get pearls and we know that pearls are not, and do not originate from, fish.

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 he or she is anywhere near the ocean, rather we transfer elements of the action of fishing (waiting, hoping to catch something that cannot be seen) into a new domain (a conversation). Thus, metonymy works by calling up a domain of usage and an array of associations (in the example above, boats, the ocean, gathering life from the sea) whereas metaphor picks a target set of meanings and transfers them to a new domain of usage.

Example: "Lend me your ear"

Sometimes, metaphor and metonymy can 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. We could imagine the following interpretations:

  1. Metonymy only: Analyze "ear" metonymically first — "ear" means "attention" (because we use ears to pay attention to someone's speech). Now when we hear the phrase "lending ear (attention)", we stretch the base meaning of "lend" (to let someone borrow an object) to include the "lending" of non-material things (attention), but beyond this slight extension of the verb, no metaphor is at work.
  2. Metaphor only: Imagine the whole phrase literally — imagine that the speaker literally borrows the listener's ear as a physical object (and presumably the person's head with it). Then the speaker has temporary possession of the listener's ear, so the listener has granted the speaker temporary control over what the listener hears. We then interpret the phrase "lend me your ear" metaphorically to mean that the speaker wants the listener to grant the speaker temporary control over what the listener hears.
  3. Metaphor and metonymy: First, analyze the verb phrase "lend me your ear" metaphorically to mean "turn your ear in my direction," since we know that literally lending a body is nonsensical. Then, analyze the motion of ears metonymically — we associate "turning ears" with "paying attention", which is what the speaker wants the listeners to do.

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 by one and the same listener at different times. Regardless, all three analyses yield the same interpretation; thus, metaphor and metonymy, though quite different in their mechanism, can 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, see .

Metonymy in polysemy

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 writing instrument versus enclosure, they are considered homonyms.

Within logical polysemies, a large class of mappings can 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 where the meaning is polysemous however, may turn out to be more metaphorical, e.g. eye as in the eye of the needle.

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Metonymy as a rhetorical strategy

Metonymy can also refer to the rhetorical strategy of describing something indirectly by referring to things around it. 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. Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice, Chapter 43.

Austen describes the house and Elizabeth's admiration for the estate at length as an indirect way of describing her feelings for Mr. Darcy himself. 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 usage 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.

Metonymy and synecdoche

Synecdoche, where a specific part of something is used to refer to the whole, is usually 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 usage 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 metonymy if A is commonly associated with B but not actually 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 or 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) actually referred to.

An example of a single sentence that displays synecdoche, metaphor and metonymy would be: "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.

Examples of metonymies

the press>
word original use metonymic use
dish item of crockery a course (in dining)
sweat perspiration hard work
tongue oral muscle a language or dialect
the press printing press news media
printing press the news media
city hall a city's chief administrative building city government or government in general (Common usage in axiom, "You can't fight city hall.")
Washington capital of the United States the United States federal government
The White House Official residence of the President of the United States the President and staff
Capitol Hill location of the United States Congress Congressmen and Congress in general
The Pentagon building in Arlington, Virginia that houses... the United States Department of Defense
Quantico town in Virginia that houses... the Federal Bureau of Investigation
Foggy Bottom neighborhood in Washington, D.C. that houses... the United States Department of State
Hollywood District of Los Angeles, California, historically the primary center of... the American film industry
Broadway street in New York City Broadway theatre in particular, and American theatre in general
Wall Street street in New York City the United States financial markets, of which Wall Street is the largest center
Silicon Valley geographic region of the San Francisco Bay Area all the high-tech companies located in the area
Redmond a city in the state of Washington Microsoft Corporation, which is headquartered there
Cupertino a city in the state of California Apple Inc., which is headquartered there
Detroit largest city in the state of Michigan the United States automobile industry, which is centered in the Detroit area
Langley town in the commonwealth of Virginia the Central Intelligence Agency, whose headquarters are in this town
Sand Hill Road a road in Menlo Park, California Used to refer to some of the biggest Venture Capital firms in Silicon Valley, many of whose offices are located along this road.
Madison Avenue a street in New York City the United States advertising industry
Seventh Avenue a street in New York City the United States fashion industry
K Street A street in central Washington, D.C. The U.S. lobbying industry, many of whose firms have offices on this street
Houston largest city in the state of Texas NASA Mission Control, from the phrase "Houston, we have a problem"
Annapolis the capital of the state of Maryland the United States Naval Academy, which is located there
West Point a United States Army base in the state of New York the United States Military Academy, located on this base
Cape Canaveral a geographic feature in the state of Florida near the... NASA Kennedy Space Center and Cape Canaveral Air Force Station
Nashville the capital of the state of Tennessee the country music industry, which has strong ties to Nashville
most U.S. state capital cities the state capital the state government (possible exceptions being state capitals more known for other features, such as major cities like Atlanta, Boston or Phoenix, or Nashville as noted immediately above)
Bay Street street in Toronto the Canadian financial markets, historically centred on Bay Street
Ottawa capital of Canada the Canadian federal government
Queen's Park The University of Toronto-owned park that houses... the Government of Ontario
The Crown A monarch's headwear the British monarchy
The Palace Buckingham Palace the British monarchy
Downing Street or "Number 10" Official residence of the Prime Minister the British Prime Minister and his or her staff
Whitehall A neighborhood of London in which may be found... the offices of the British government's senior bureaucrats
The City The City of London the British financial markets, historically centred in The City
Westminster The City of Westminster in London The Parliament of the United Kingdom, located in Westminster.
Harley Street A street in the City of Westminster, home to a high concentration of dentists, surgeons and physicians the British private medical industry
Holyrood A district in Edinburgh, where you can find... the Scottish Parliament
Fleet Street A street in London which was the original location of much of... the British newspaper industry
Scotland Yard Name of the original headquarters of... the Metropolitan Police
Thames House Headquarters of... the British Security Services
Vauxhall Cross Headquarters of... the Secret Intelligence Service (aka MI6)
L'Élysée The Élysée Palace, official residence of... the French president and his or her staff
Matignon The Hôtel Matignon, official residence of... the French prime minister and his or her staff
Berlaymont The building housing... the European Commission
Brussels the capital city of Belgium, also home to most of the... Institutions of the European Union
Strasbourg Alsatian city, which is the official seat of the... European Parliament
Rest of the world
The Kremlin A fortified complex in Moscow Formerly the Soviet government; used today to a lesser extent for the Russian government
Zion a mountain/fortress in Jerusalem the city of Jerusalem and more often, the land of Israel in general
The Beehive A building in Wellington which houses the offices of the Prime Minister of New Zealand and his or her Cabinet the Government of New Zealand in general
Gulag chief administration of the Soviet forced labour camps the prison camps it administered
Malacañang the Philippine presidential palace in Manila the President of the Philippines
Rome, Holy See, or The Vatican official residence of the Pope and Curia in Rome, or the Roman Catholic Church
any country's capital city the country's capital that country's government in general, and often, as the whole country itself

In fact, the capital of any nation can be used to refer to that nation's government, especially in terms of foreign relations. Thus, a dispute between the governments of Jordan and Iran might be described as a fight between Amman and Tehran. Another frequent example of metonymy is the use of a football (soccer) team's stadium to refer to the club itself, such as "Old Trafford" as a reference to Manchester United.

See also


  • Corbett, Edward P.J. (1971). Classical Rhetoric for the Modern Student. New York: Oxford University Press.
  • Dirven, René Conversion as a Conceptual Metonymy of Basic Event Schemata.
  • Fass, Dan Processing Metonymy and Metaphor.
  • Smyth, Herbert Weir (1920). Greek Grammar. Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press. ISBN 0-674-36250-0.
  • Blank, Andreas (1998), Prinzipien des lexikalischen Bedeutungswandels am Beispiel der romanischen Sprachen, Tübingen: Niemeyer.
  • Grzega, Joachim (2004), Bezeichnungswandel: Wie, Warum, Wozu? Ein Beitrag zur englischen und allgemeinen Onomasiologie, Heidelberg: Winter.

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