Definition of Metonymy

Metonymy is a figure of speech in which something is called by a new name that is related in meaning to the original thing or concept. For example, it’s common practice to refer to celebrity life and culture in the United States as “Hollywood,” as in “Hollywood is obsessed with this new diet.” The meaning of this statement is not that the place itself has any obsession, of course, but instead refers to the celebrities and wannabe celebrities who reside there.

Common Examples of Metonymy

As noted above, “Hollywood” can act as a metonym for celebrity culture. There are many other place names that act metonymically in the same way, such as “Wall Street” for the financial sector and “Washington” for the United States government. However, there are many more words in common usage that are metonyms. Here are more examples of metonymy:

  • The big house—Refers to prison
  • The pen—Can refer to prison or to the act of writing
  • Stuffed shirts—People in positions of authority, especially in a business setting
  • The crown—a royal person
  • The Yankees/The Red Sox/The Cowboys, etc.—any team name is regularly used as a metonym for the players on the team. This is a less obvious metonym because often the team name is a group of people (the Cowboys, for instance), yet of course the football players who make up the Dallas Cowboys are not, in fact, cowboys.
  • The New York Times/Morgan Stanley/Wells Fargo, etc.—any organization or company name is often used to stand in for the people who work there, such as “The New York Times stated that…” or “Wells Fargo has decided….”

Difference Between Metonymy and Synecdoche

Metonymy and synecdoche are very similar figures of speech, and some consider synecdoche to be a specific type of metonymy. Synecdoche occurs when the name of a part is used to refer to the whole, such as in “There are hungry mouths to feed.” The mouths stand in for the hungry people. The definition of metonymy is more expansive, including concepts that are merely associated in meaning and not necessarily parts of the original thing or concept.

Significance of Metonymy in Literature

Scholars have long been interested in metonymy as a literary and rhetorical device. Ancient Greek and Latin scholars discussed the way in which metonymy changed words and meanings by providing new referents and connections between concepts. Authors have used metonymy for millennia for many different reasons. One primary reason is simply to address something in a more poetic and unique way. Authors can also add more complexity and meaning to ordinary words by using metonymy, thereby drawing the reader’s attention to what otherwise would not be noticed. Sometimes metonymy is also helpful to make statements more concise.

Examples of Metonymy in Literature

Example #1

Their ocean-keel boarding,
they drove through the deep, and Daneland left.
A sea-cloth was set, a sail with ropes,
firm to the mast; the flood-timbers moaned;
nor did wind over billows that wave-swimmer blow
across from her course.

(Beowulf—Tr. John Crowther)

In the Old English epic poem Beowulf there are many examples of metonymy. In this particular excerpt, the author uses the terms “ocean-keel” and “wave-swimmer” to refer to the entire ship. The author goes on to describe other parts of the ship very poetically, calling the sail the “sea-cloth” at first and referring to the boards of the ship “as flood-timbers.” This was a very popular technique in Old English works, and the use of metonymy here draws the reader’s attention to the different ways to understand the form and function of the ship and its parts. Thus metonymy creates new connections in this example.

Example #2

MARCELLUS: Something is rotten in the state of Denmark.

(Hamlet by William Shakespeare)

Shakespeare used metonymy in many of his plays and poems. This line from Hamlet is often repeated. We are made to understand that “the state of Denmark” stands in for the whole royal system and government. The rottenness is not widespread over the entire country, but instead is limited to the dealings of those in power. In this case, the character Claudius has come to power in a suspicious way, and those surrounding him feel unease at the new order.

Example #3

The party preserved a dignified homogeneity, and assumed to itself the function of representing the staid nobility of the countryside—East Egg condescending to West Egg, and carefully on guard against its spectroscopic gayety.

(The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald)

This metonymy example from F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby is similar to the Shakespeare example in that it uses a place name to stand in for the people in that place. The difference in social standing between the narrator Nick Carraway and Jay Gatsby’s friends is a central theme in the novel. Nick lives in West Egg, while Jay and his friends live in the much fancier East Egg. In fact, to the outside observer there is not much different between the two places, but the inhabitants of East Egg find it very important to establish the distinctions between them. In the above sentence, “East Egg” refers to the posh citizens of the place, while “West Egg” refers to the more middle-class citizens there.

Example #4

He tried to remember in what year he had first heard mention of Big Brother. He thought it must have been at some time in the sixties, but it was impossible to be certain. In the Party histories, of course, Big Brother figured as the leader and guardian of the Revolution since its very earliest days. His exploits had been gradually pushed backwards in time until already they extended into the fabulous world of the forties and the thirties, when the capitalists in their strange cylindrical hats still rode through the streets of London in great gleaming motor-cars or horse carriages with glass sides. There was no knowing how much of this legend was true and how much invented. Winston could not even remember at what date the Party itself had come into existence.

(1984 by George Orwell)

The “Party” in George Orwell’s novel 1984 stands in for the highest officials of this new government. By using the metonymy to refer to the individuals, Orwell further separates the governing class from any sense of humanity; no one in the society seems to know the name of any actual ruling member. Even “Big Brother,” who seems to start out as an individual, comes to represent the ubiquitous surveillance of the government and not an actual man. The term “Big Brother” has entered the English lexicon as a metonym for government that interferes too much in private life.

Test Your Knowledge of Metonymy

1. Choose the best metonymy definition from the following statements:
A. A figure of speech in which a thing or concept is called by another name that is related in meaning to the original thing.
B. A juxtaposition of opposing concepts to highlight their differences.
C. A simpler way of speaking and writing to make concepts more understandable to the listener or reader.
[spoiler title=”Answer to Question #1″]
Answer: A is the correct answer.[/spoiler]

2. In which of the following sentences is the word “suits” an example of metonymy?
A. The CEOs of the two companies were both wearing finely tailored suits.
B. The suits from upstairs are in a big meeting.
C. Hearts, aces, and clubs are three of the suits in card decks.
[spoiler title=”Answer to Question #2″]
Answer: B is the correct answer.[/spoiler]

3. Consider the following excerpt from Tennessee Williams’s The Glass Menagerie:

People go to the movies instead of moving! Hollywood characters are supposed to have all the adventures for everybody in America, while everybody in America sits in a dark room and watches them have them! Yes, until there’s a war. That’s when adventure becomes available to the masses! Everyone’s dish, not only Gable’s! Then the people in the dark room come out of the dark room to have some adventures themselves — Goody, goody! — It’s our turn now, to go to the south Sea Island — to make a safari — to be exotic, far-off! — But I’m not patient. I don’t want to wait till then. I’m tired of the movies and I am about to move!

Which of the following words is an example of metonymy?
A. Hollywood
B. America
C. Neither
[spoiler title=”Answer to Question #3″]
Answer: C is the correct answer. This is a difficult question, as the first two answers seem like they could be right. However, in the context that Williams has used them, Hollywood and America are not metonymies. This is because he refers to “Hollywood characters” and “everybody in America,” thus attaching the place names to people and not letting the place names stand in for people.[/spoiler]