As a writer, there are hundreds of literary devices you can use to spice up your words and send a message to your reader. From metaphors and similes to irony, hyperbole, and oxymorons, using language in different ways can add an extra layer of depth and interest to your work.

But here’s a device you may not have heard of—or at least since your days in English class: metonymy. We’ll show you everything you need to know when it comes to different types of metonymy, how writers of various genres integrate it into both fiction and nonfiction work, along with a few metonymy examples to get you inspired for your own writing.

What Is Metonymy?

Before we dive into how to use this literary tactic in your own writing, let’s take a quick look at the metonymy definition. Essentially, it’s a way of using a different name for an object or idea to convey a certain feeling or message. The substituted phrase has a close association to the actual name, so everyone understands the meaning, but it acts as a figure of speech. 

We use metonymy in everyday life more often than you think. For example, the office of the President of the United States is often called “the Oval Office” or “the White House”—both are names of places but are used to refer to the administration or people working out of those locations. Even though these phrases are being used in a different context than what they literally are, we all know what journalists or reporters mean when they say them.

Though they sound similar, there’s a difference between metonymy and metaphor. Metaphors are based on analogies, where you’re making an obvious comparison and removing the “like” or “as.” Think “Erika has the memory of an elephant”—while she doesn’t literally have the memory of an elephant, the comparison is being made that she remembers things for a long time, in the same manner that elephants do.

Metonymy, on the other hand, isn’t making a comparison as such. The word that’s being substituted is used because there’s already an understood association between the new word and the original.

Types of Metonymy

Synecdoche

Synecdoche—using a phrase that contains either the part for the whole or the whole for one of its parts—is considered to be a type of metonymy.

For instance, the TV show Suits is named for the quirky phrase that’s often used to describe business executives or, in this case, lawyers. The name is a synecdoche because we’re not just talking about what the characters are wearing. Instead, the phrase takes part of the person (the suit) and uses it to refer to them as a whole.

In everyday language, you may hear someone say “I can’t drive stick” to refer to a car with a manual transmission. Obviously, a car is made up of more pieces than just the stick shift! But we all know what someone means when they say this. The part (stick) refers to the whole (car), which makes it a synecdoche.

Metalepsis

Where a synecdoche breaks down associations into individual pieces, a metalepsis takes a familiar word or phrase and uses it in a new context. You may also see metalepsis referred to as transumption.

Let’s look at an example. “I’ve got to catch the worm tomorrow,” refers to the phrase, “the early bird catches the worm.” By saying that you need to catch the worm, you’re saying that you need to be up early. Literally taken, this makes no sense at all. But by comparing yourself to a bird, but then omitting this part and relying on the common association with this phrase, you’ve created a metalepsis.

Polysemy

While not strictly a type of metonymy, polysemy is closely linked. This is where a word or phrase can have multiple meanings.

Metonymy is a type of non-linear polysemy, where a phrase stands for something else and can be used in both contexts. For example, “hands,” the body part, can also be used to refer to laborers or workers. The workers use their physical hands, but we all understand the association being made when this word is used to describe the collective group of people doing the work too.

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Examples of Metonymy

Some of the best metonymy examples come from our daily lives. Once you start to recognize them, you’ll soon see them everywhere!

  • When you hear “a rough day on Wall Street,” it’s not about the actual street in Manhattan. Instead, this phrase refers to the American financial market broadly. 
  • The theater industry in New York is often referred to as “Broadway.” Similarly, the London theater scene is called “the West End.” Both are references to the geographic locations of theaters in those cities.
  • The British royal family is commonly termed “the Crown”—yes, that’s where the name of the hit Netflix show comes from!
  • Prison or jail being termed “the clink” typically comes from the association that we have of the noise that iron shackles or jail cell doors make. But the history of this goes back even further to 12th century England, where The Clink was a notorious medieval prison.

Metonymy in Poetry

Metonymy has been used in poetry for thousands of years—even Shakespeare was a fan! Poets all the way up to the present day continue to use this literary technique to shorten phrases that don’t fit their rhythm or to liven up the imagery of their creative works.

  • In the Keats poem “Ode to a Nightingale,” the line “O, for a draught of vintage!” refers to wine. This was a typical phrase used at the time and, although it’s less common today, you may still hear people refer to older or more expensive wines as “a great vintage.”
  • Shakespeare’s “Julius Caesar” is full of metonymy examples. One of the most famous is during Marc Antony’s speech, where he calls on the citizens of Rome to “lend me your ears.” This is in reference to the people paying attention and listening to him.
  • Robert Frost’s poem “Out, Out” also uses metonymy several times. “Half in appeal, but half as if to keep / The life from spilling” refers to the loss of blood and therefore life. While life itself cannot be spilled, the close association with blood makes his meaning immediately clear to the reader.

It’s Just a Figure of Speech

Now that you have a better understanding of what metonymy is, you’re ready to start incorporating it into your own writing. Think about areas of life where you already know metonymy exists. This will help you to find associations that might not be as commonly used but are just as impactful.

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Written By

Holly Landis

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