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Metonymy – definition
Metonymy is a figure of speech in which an attribute or a suggestive word is substituted for the name of something.
Metonym Thing represented The Stage the acting profession Shakespeare the plays of Shakespeare The Crown the monarchy Whitehall the civil service
Metonymy is part of everyday speech. It is usually used quite unconsciously.
It is often used in imaginative writing such as fiction and poetry to clarify and enhance an image.
NB! If you find it difficult to remember the difference between metonymy and synecdoche — you’re not alone.
Metonymy can be seen as a specific kind of symbolism by which the most essential component of the subject is abstracted to represent it. This component acts as a single symbol for something larger and usually more complex.
For instance, a crown is the most essential material component of the trappings of royalty, and so it serves well in representing the whole system of monarchy.
Similarly, the stage is a material component of acting as a profession. This too serves to represent symbolically something abstract and dynamic.
The ‘cloth’ symbolises the religious profession, and the ‘bar’ represents the legal profession. Both these items are essential material objects and are used to refer to the abstract concept of a profession.
In a statement such as ‘Shakespeare depicts monarchs as human’ the name is actually symbolising the total collection of his works. This form of metonymy is useful as a very graphic kind of shorthand.
This pragmatic explanation could also apply to the example of ‘Whitehall announced today …’, although we could ascribe more political and even ulterior functions to this usage. [Remember, ‘Whitehall’ represent the civil service in the UK.]
To refer to Whitehall as having issued a statement is to generalise the source of the communication. This may be in the political interest of the Establishment. It is a form of social control to promote an image of a corporate mass of civil servants, rather than suggesting that one person or even a small hierarchical group makes significant and powerful decisions.
Whitehall as a material location stands for something abstract, in this case an institution. This symbolic use depersonalises the source of the statement, perhaps thereby giving it more authority.
This political interpretation is merely speculation, but the mechanical analysis of metonymy as a symbolic device stands on firmer ground.
[Pedants who collect terms enjoy distinguishing metonymy from synechdoche, which is its figurative bedfellow.]
© Roy Johnson 2003