Metonymy: A change of names between things closely related or a reference to a thing or person by naming one of its attributes.
Metonymy: A change of names between things closely related or a reference to a thing or person by naming one of its attributes.

Definition and Examples of Metonymy

Metonymy (etymologically from Greek combination ‘meta,’ [change] and ‘onoma’ [name]) is a change of names between things closely related or a referenceOpens in new window to a thing or person by naming one of its attributesOpens in new window.

The idea behind this is not founded on resemblance, but on some such relation as that of cause and effect, of progenitor and posterity, of subject and adjunct, of placea and inhabitant, of container and thing contained, or of sign and thing signified.

  • For example: “God is our salvation,” the idea of salvation is adopted from, Saviour. And likewise: “Hear, O Israel,” O Israel alluding generally to its inhabitant—the descendants of Israel.

Concepts and Instances of Metonymy

Metonymy does not merely substitute one entity for another, but interrelates each one of them to form a new, complex meaning. To adopt an ingenious author’s example:

  • “We do not refer to music by stating: ‘I like Abba,’ but to ‘music’ composed by Abba; in the same vein, we do not refer to ‘water’ by stating, ‘The bathub is running over,’ but to ‘the water’ in the bathtub.”

Metonymic relationships should therefore be adequately represented by using an additive notation such as x plus y.

Take for instance, the association between an organization (an abstract concept), such as a sport team or a government institution, and its base location. While we can refer to the organization directly using its name, we often find it convenient to use the name of the location to refer to the organization. Ponder the following:

  • The Manchester side won all its previous games
  • Who knows what decision Memphis firm will take

In the first example above, we are simply replacing the name of the Team with the name of its district location which is Manchester. Also, we used metonymy to reference a firm by naming the district where it is headquartered which in this case is Memphis.

Another conceptual association that permits metonymy is that involving a document and its content. Thus, in the following example, the word book refers to a physical object: a collection of sheets, bound together, with printing or pictures on them. But we can also use the word to refer to the informational content of the physical book. Compare the uses of the word in these two sentences:

  • This book is almost too heavy to lift
  • I don’t understand this book at all

In the first example, the speaker is clearly referring to the physical object; in the second example, he referred to the information contained in the physical object. In a case like this, metonymic extension allows a noun referring to a physical object to refer to something more abstract.

Should we pay close attention, we may also observe the versatility of metonymy in the speech of young children. Andres, who was learning both English and Spanish, used the Spanish word luna (‘moon’ in adult Spanish) during his second year to refer not only to the pens or pencils he used to draw crescent shapes. It appears that he has extended the word on the basis of the relation between an image and the instrument used to produce the image. But, as always, we must be careful in interpreting children’s utterances.

Most of Andres’ utterances during this period consisted of a single word. When he said “luna” apparently referring to a pen, did he really mean something more like “use this to draw a crescent”? We have no way of knowing.

Another instance where Metonymy prevails is when a speaker decides to reference something by the use of a name attributed to it.

  • The pen is mightier than the sword

The pen mentioned here is associated with thoughts that are written with it (the pen), this symbolises superiority of written thoughts and communication over war or physical force as respresented by the sword.

Metonymy may also be used in situations where alternative to an existing noun is called for, perhaps as a very informal or insulting term. Examples are the use of wheels to mean ‘car’, brain to mean ‘person’ in an insulting context. In these examples, the relevant conceptual relation is between a whole and a part. (There is much more going on than just this, especially in the last example, because the choice of the particular part is obviously also relevant!)

Other Practical Examples

Metonymic ExpressionThe Referents
He was the sigh of her secret soulthe youth she loved
They smote the citythe inhabitant of the city
My son, give me thy heartaffection
The sceptre shall not depart from Judahkingly power
They have Moses and the prophetstheir writings (See Luke, xv1, 29)

Metonymy is also known as ‘denominatio,’ ‘hypallage,’ ‘transnominatio,’ ‘transmutatio,’ ‘metonimia.’ This rhetorical device is an ideal and powerful tool used by speakers and writers to conceive distinct ideas and vivid images in place of everyday term. Metonymy adds brevity and flavor to literary works. Using metonymy also serves to eliminate awkwardness of repeating same word or phrase over multiple times and instead substituting such words to animate the sentence with beautiful sensation, and make it an exhilarating and interesting experience for the audience (hearers and readers).

Further Readings:
Silver Rhetoricae, Figures | MetonymyOpens in new window
Metonymy in Language and Thought | edited by Klaus-Uwe Panther, Günter Radden MetonymyOpens in new window
Ad Herennium (“denomination” 4.32.43); Quintilian ([8.6.] p.23-27);
Susenbrotus (“metonymia,” “transnominatio” [1540,] p.8-9);
Wilson (“Transmutation of a Word” [1560] p.200); Fraunce [1588] 1.2-5;
Putt. (“metonimia,” “the misnamer” [1589] 191); Day (“metonymia,” “transnominatio” [1599] p.78);
Hoskins (“metonymia” [1599] p.10)