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In rhetoric, metonymy is the substitution of one word for another word with which it is associated.

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.

A few commonly used examples of metonymy are:

Cognitively, metonymy is attested in cognitive processes underlying language (e.g. the infant's association of the nipple with milk). Objects which appear strongly in a single context emerge as cognitive labels for the whole concept, thus fueling linguistic labels such as "crown" to refer to a king or to the monarchy.

The word metonymy is derived from from Greek μετά- beyond/changed and -ωνυμία, a suffix used to name figures of speech from ὄνυμα name (OED)) (IPA: [mɛ.'tɒ.nə.mi].

Metonymy vs. Metaphor

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 (Jakobson, Roman (2002), "Two Aspects of Language and Two Types of Disturbances" in Linda Waugh and Monique Monville-Burston, ed., On Language, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press).

Metonymy works by the contiguity or association between two referents, 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 crown-like about the king, press-like about reporters or plate-like about an entrée.

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 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 they are 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.

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, look at the phrase, "lend me your ear." This phrase 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 -- the speaker now has a collection of the listener's ears at his disposal. If he were to have such a collection, the listeners could not help but listen to what the speaker has to say. We then analyze this complete image metaphorically to mean that the speaker wants the listeners to pay attention.
  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 Geeraerts, Dirk (2002), "The interaction of metaphor and metonymy in composite expressions" in René Dirven & Ralf Pörings, ed., Metaphor and Metonymy in Contrast, Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter [August 20, 2006].

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 vs enclosure, they are considered homonyms, otherwise they are logical polysemies or simple polysemies.

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.

See also:

  • … (2002), Metaphor and Metonymy in Contrast, Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter
  • Lakoff, George (1980), Metaphors We Live By, Chicago, IL: The University of Chicago Press.
  • Jakobson, Roman (2002), "Two Aspects of Language and Two Types of Disturbances" in Linda Waugh and Monique Monville-Burston, ed., On Language, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press

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 taken 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 part of B and a metonymy if A is commonly associated with B but not a part of it.

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, asking for "All hands on deck" is a synecdoche because hands (A) are actually a part of the people (B) to whom they refer.

Those who argue that synecdoche is a class of metonymy might point out that "hands" (A) are a metonym for workers (B) since hands are closely associated with the work the people do as well as a part of the people. That is, hands are associated with work through a metonymy at the same time as being associated with the people through synecdoche.

An example of a single sentence which displays synecdoche, metaphor and metonymy would be: "Fifty keels ploughed the deep", where "keels" is the synecdoche as it takes a part (of the ship) as the whole (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 "deepness" is an attribute associated with the ocean.

See also

  • -onym
  • Deferred reference
  • Figure of speech
  • Metalepsis
  • Newspeak
  • Social stereotype
  • Synecdoche
  • totum pro parte
  • pars pro toto


  • 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.
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