Metonymy is the use of a linked term to stand in for an object or concept. You’ll find examples of metonymy used frequently in both literature and everyday speech. You might use it yourself without even realizing it. Get a clear idea of the purpose of metonymy, how it differs from other literary devices and metonymy examples.
As with other literary devices, one of the main purposes of metonymy is to add flavor to writing. A famous example of metonymy is, "The pen is mightier than the sword" from Edward Bulwer Lytton's play Cardinal Richelieu. This sentence has two metonyms:
- "Pen" stands for "the written word."
- "Sword" stands for "military aggression."
Metonyms are members of the figurative language family, so they serve as colorful ways to take the ordinary and dress it up into something poetic or beautiful.
Understanding the context of metonymy is important. Every time you hear the word “pen,” it’s not necessarily a stand-in for “the written word.” Sometimes, a pen is just a pen. Look for context clues in the sentence to help you decide if the word is simply a word or if it's a representation. These examples include the metonymy, the possible object or concepts for which it could fill in and example sentences to further enhance your appreciation and understanding of the term.
|crown||in place of a royal person||We will swear loyalty to the crown.|
|The White House or The Oval Office||used in place of the President or White House staff||The White House will be making an announcement around noon.|
|suits||in place of businesspeople||If we don’t get these reports in today, the suits will be after us.|
|heart||to refer to love or emotion||My dear, you have all of my heart.|
|dish||for an entire plate of food||That fancy fish dish you made was the best of the evening.|
|Washington||to refer to the U.S. government||After the protests, maybe Washington will listen to the voters.|
|the big house||to refer to prison||My brother was just released from the big house.|
|Silicon Valley||to refer to the tech industry||Silicon Valley is constantly pushing the boundaries in innovation.|
|Hollywood||to refer to the film industry||It seems like people will do whatever Hollywood says is cool.|
|ears||for giving attention, listening||Tell me about your first date. I’m all ears!|
|silver fox||for an attractive older man||Your older neighbor is quite the silver fox.|
|hand||for help||Can you give me a hand carrying this box up the stairs?|
|tongue||used in place of language||I couldn’t understand them, they spoke in their mother tongue.|
|brass||used in place of high-ranking officials||Look lively, the top brass are coming for an audit today.|
|new blood||used in place of new people, fresh ideas||The team needs some new blood if it's going to win next season.|
Metonymy is used to provide meaning and connections to concepts. Writers often use it in this way, as well as to be more poetic or simply to make a long sentence more concise.
In this metonymy, Scarlett O’Hara is referring to the government and citizens of Georgia. By using “Georgia” instead of “Georgia’s government, politicians and all the voting citizens” the author provides brevity and color.
“I'm mighty glad Georgia waited till after Christmas before it secedes or it would have ruined the Christmas parties.”
In William Shakespeare's play, “ears” represent the ability to listen. Shakespeare is not asking for everyone to chop off their ears, but rather he's asking them to pay attention.
“Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears;”
You may need a few context clues here, but “vintage” is used as a metonymy for “wine.”
“O, for a draught of vintage!”
Author Mark Twain was a lover of figurative language. Many of his writings are wrapped in pretty illustrations. In this metonymy, “body” is a replacement for “person.”
"He said he reckoned a body could reform the old man with a shotgun, maybe, but he didn’t know no other way."
Close relatives of metonymy are synecdoche and metaphor. In fact, some consider synecdoche to be a type of metonymy. Since you've explored the metonymy definition, it's time to look at synecdoche and metaphor and how the three are related. While metonymy replaces a concept or object entirely with a related term, synecdoche takes an element of the object and uses it to refer to the whole. Metaphor uses unlike things to draw an interesting comparison.
When people refer to their car as their “wheels,” that’s a synecdoche. Wheels are a part of the car. Another term for a car is your “ride.” In this case, “ride” is a metonymy because it’s a related word that replaces the term entirely.
While metaphors replace the ordinary with the more fanciful, they don’t replace one word with another. Rather, they compare one thing to something else, in order to make a point. For example, “My life is a train wreck,” is a metaphor for, “My life is a horrible mess.”
Metonymy allows you to make a closely related substitute to add interest. As long as that substitute makes a logical connection, feel free to dress up your writing with these colorful elements. You may find yourself joining the ranks of Mark Twain or William Shakespeare someday!