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Metonymy (11px /mɨˈtɒnɨmi/ mi-tonn-ə-mee)[1] 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, "Westminster" is used as a metonym (an instance of metonymy) for the Parliament of the United Kingdom, because it is located there.

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."[2] Metonymy may also 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).

Cognitive science and linguistics for metaphor and metonymyEdit

Main article: Metaphor and metonymy

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 better.[3] 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 he or she 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, 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.


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:

  • 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.
  • Imagine the whole phrase literally — imagine that the speaker literally borrows the listener's ear as a physical object (and 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.
  • 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 part 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, read this article titled Metaphor and Metonymy in Contrast.[4]


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 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 wherein the meaning is polysemous, however, may turn out to be more metaphorical, e.g., eye as in the eye of the needle.

Rhetorical strategy Edit

Metonymy can also 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 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.

Synecdoche Edit

Synecdoche, wherein 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 metonym 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 metonym 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.

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.

Examples Edit

Main article: List of metonyms
wordliteral meaningmetonymic use
drinking consuming a liquid consuming alcohol
damages destructive effects money paid in compensation
word a unit of language a promise (to give/keep/break one's word); a conversation (to have a word with)
sweatperspirationhard work
tongueoral musclea language or dialect
the pressprinting pressthe news media
Houstonlargest city in the state of Texas NASA Mission Control (for which the call sign is "Houston")
Annapolisthe capital of the state of Marylandthe United States Naval Academy, which is located there
Detroitthe largest city in Michiganthe American automotive industry
Hollywooda section of Los Angelesthe American film & television industry
The KremlinA fortified construction in historic cities of Russia and the Soviet UnionThe Government of Russia or the Moscow Kremlin
Langleyan unincorporated community in VirginiaThe Central Intelligence Agency
Washingtonthe capital city of the United Statesthe government of the United States
Ottawathe capital city of Canadathe government of Canada
Queen's Parka large urban park in Torontothe Government of Ontario
Canberrathe capital city of Australiathe Federal government of Australia
Islamabadcapital city of PakistanThe Government of Pakistan
Wall Streeta street in Lower Manhattan, New York Citythe American financial and banking industry
Bay Streeta street in downtown Torontothe Canadian financial and banking industry, or the major Canadian corporate law firms
K Streeta street in Washington, D.C.the U.S. lobbying industry
Madison Avenuean avenue running the length of Manhattan Island in New York Citythe American advertising industry
Broadwayan avenue running the length of Manhattan Island in New York Citythe live theater district of New York
The Hill a historic neighborhood in Washington, D.C. and the physical location of the United States Congress the legislative branch of the federal government
The White House the official Presidential residence in Washington, D.C. the US President, his staff and close advisors
The Pentagon a large government office building in Arlington, Virginia the United States Department of Defense, the United States Secretary of Defense, and high-ranking military officials, all based in said building
Downing Street A street in the City of Westminster, on which is located No. 10, the official residence of the UK Prime Minister The British Prime Minister's Office
Scotland Yard A London building, the former headquarters of the Metropolitan Police (the current Headquarters is New Scotland Yard.Metropolitan Police
The City City of London the British financial and banking industry
The CrownA monarch's headwearthe legal embodiment of executive government
The Palace Buckingham Palace the monarch's office
WestminsterA City in Greater Londonthe UK Government, which is located there
WhitehallA street in the City of Westminster, the headquarters of the British Civil Service and various Governmental Departmentsthe British Civil service or a Government Department
Fleet StreetA street in Londonthe British press, particularly newspapers
The Vatican The Vatican City State The Pope and Magisterium of the Roman Catholic Church
Redmond A city in King County, Washington, US Microsoft Corporation
Frankenstein Scientist (fictional character in Mary Shelley novel) who gives life to a creature Frankenstein's monster

[5][6] || a village and commune in Luxembourg on the Moselle River || Schengen Agreement, Schengen Area, Schengen Information System

Stormont An estate in Belfast The Northern Ireland Assembly and Executive, which is located there.
Zhongnanhai Two small lakes in a compound west of the Forbidden City in Central Beijing Central headquarters of the Communist Party of China and the State Council of the People's Republic of China
Silicon ValleyNickname for the section of the San Francisco Bay area that is home to many high-tech corporationsThe American computer and electronics industry
benchthe seat where judges in a trial sitThe judiciary
PDXInternational airport code for the Portland, Oregon International AirportThe city of Portland, Oregon


Metalepsis and metonymy are closely related. Much like synecdoche, it is understood as a specific kind of metonymy.

See alsoEdit


  1. [1]
  2. Welsh, Alfred Hux; James Mickleborough Greenwood (1893). Studies in English Grammar: A Comprehensive Course for Grammar Schools, High Schools and Academies. New York City: Silver Burdett. pp. 222. 
  3. example drawn from Dirven, 1996
  4. Geeraerts, Dirk (2002), "The interaction of metaphor and metonymy in composite expressions", in René Dirven & Ralf Pörings, Metaphor and Metonymy in Contrast, Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter,, retrieved August 20, 2006 
  5. Halverson, Sandra L. et al. "Domains and Dimensions in Metonymy: A Corpus-Based Study of Schengen and Maastricht," Metaphor and Symbol, 1532-7868, Vol. 25, Issue 1, 2010, pp. 1 – 18.
  6. Natase, Vivi and Michael Strube. "Combining collocations, lexical and encyclopedic knowledge for metonymy resolution," Proceedings of the 2009 Conference on Empirical Methods in Natural Language Processing, Volume 2, August 06-07, 2009, at 915 citing Farkas, Richard et al. GYDER: maxent metonymy resolution," Proceedings of the 4th International Workshop on Semantic Evaluations, Prague, Czech Republic, pp. 161-164, 2007; excerpt, "Schengen boosted tourism" ... [ignores] narrower distinctions, such as the fact that it wasn't the signing of the treaty at Schengen but its actual implementation (which didn't take place at Schengen) that boosted tourism."

Template:Ref improve section

  • 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. ISBN 1-56750-231-8. 
  • Georgij Yu. Somov, Metonymy and its manifestation in visual art works (case study of late paintings by Bruegel the Elder). Semiotica 174 (1/4), 309-366, 2009 [2].
  • Smyth, Herbert Weir (1920). Greek Grammar. Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press. pp. 680. 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.
  • Warren, Beatrice (2006), "Referential Metonymy",Royal Society of Letters at Lund, Lund, Sweden; ISBN 91-22-02148-5
Further reading
  • Template:Cite conference
  • René Dirvens & Ralf Pörings, ed. (2002), Metaphor and Metonymy in Contrast, Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter 
  • Lakoff, George (1980), Metaphors We Live By, Chicago, IL: The University of Chicago Press, ISBN 0226468011 .
  • Low, Graham. "An Essay is a Person", in Lynne Cameron, and Graham Low (Eds), Researching and Applying Metaphor, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press pp. 221–248. ISBN 978-0-521-64964-3.
  • Jakobson, Roman (1995 (originally published in 1956)), "Two Aspects of Language and Two Types of Disturbances", in Linda Waugh and Monique Monville-Burston, On Language, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, ISBN 0674635361 
  • Metonymy as a cross-lingual phenomenon [Peters 2003] ()
  • Peters, W. 2003. "Metonymy as a cross-lingual phenomenon," in Proceedings of the ACL 2003 Workshop on Lexicon and Figurative Language, Vol. 14 (Sapporo, Japan), July 11, 2003).

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