Metonymy


Metonymy is a figure of speech in which a thing or concept is referred to by the name of something closely associated with that thing or concept.  

Metonymy and related figures of speech are common in everyday speech and writing. Synecdoche and metalepsis are considered specific types of metonymy. Polysemy, multiple meanings of a single word or phrase, sometimes results from relations of metonymy. Both metonymy and metaphor involve the substitution of one term for another. In metaphor, this substitution is based on some specific analogy between two things, whereas in metonymy the substitution is based on some understood association or contiguity. 

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 or if B is a component of A, and a metonym if A is commonly associated with B but not part of its whole or a whole of its part. Thus, "20,000 hungry mouths to feed" is a synecdoche because mouths (A) are a part of the people (B) referred to. "Australia votes" is also a synecdoche because Australia is a whole of which the people who voted are a part. On the other hand, "The White House said" is metonymy, but not synecdoche, for the president and his staff, because, although the White House is associated with the president and his staff, the building is not a part of the people.  

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 may be considered to be a case of metonymic transfer (e.g., "chicken" for the bird, 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".  

Two examples using the term "fishing" help clarify the distinction. 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 the person 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, metaphor works by presenting a target set of meanings and using them to suggest a similarity between items, actions, or events in two domains, whereas metonymy calls up or references a specific domain (here, removing items from the sea).  

A place is often used as a metonym for a government or other official institutions, for example, Brussels for the institutions of the European Union, The Hague for the International Court of Justice or International Criminal Court, Nairobi for the government of Kenya, the White House and Capitol Hill for the executive and legislative branches, respectively, of the United States federal government, or Foggy Bottom for the US State Department. A place can represent an entire industry: for instance Wall Street is often used metonymically to describe the entire U.S. financial and corporate banking sector. Common nouns and phrases can also be metonyms: red tape can stand for bureaucracy, whether or not that bureaucracy actually uses red tape to bind documents. In Commonwealth realms, The Crown is a metonym for the state in all its aspects.  

Lakoff and Turner argued that all words are metonyms: “Words stand for the concepts they express.” Some artists have used actual words as metonyms in their paintings. For example, Miro’s 1925 painting "Photo: This is the Color of My Dreams" has the word “photo” to represent the image of his dreams. This painting comes from a series of paintings called peintures-poesies (paintings-poems) which reflect Miro’s interest in dreams and the subconscious and the relationship of words, images, and thoughts. Picasso, in his 1911 painting "Pipe Rack and Still Life on Table" inserts the word “Ocean” rather than painting an ocean: These paintings by Miro and Picasso are, in a sense, the reverse of a rebus: the word stands for the picture, instead of the picture standing for the word.