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Metonymy: How to Use This Literary Device

Updated on March 21, 2023Students

One mark of a good writer is their ability to keep things brief. Why spend words on simple explanations, when those words could be better used creating vivid imagery or coming up with clever puns? A great tool for keeping things quick and clear, without sacrificing depth, is metonymy. Metonymy is a figure of speech that replaces one word with another, closely related, word.

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What is metonymy?

Metonymy (pronounced meh-TAH-nuh-mee) is defined as a figure of speech in which one word is substituted for another word that it is closely associated with. An instance of metonymy is sometimes called a metonym. Some common examples of metonymy that you’ll hear in everyday speech are:

Dish as a substitute for a whole plate of food.

Hand as a substitute for assistance.

Tongue as a substitute for language.

Metonymy also occurs frequently when places become closely associated with an industry or activity. For example, “Wall Street” is often a stand-in for the financial industry, “Silicon Valley” is a substitute for the tech industry, and “Washington” pertains to anything having to do with the American government.

Why do writers use metonymy?

Metonymy can enhance your writing by creating new imagery, making words more powerful, and conveying a complex idea or emotion in a more concise way.

Creating imagery

By substituting one thing for another, you can bring a whole bunch of vivid associations along with it. For example, the word suits as metonymy for businesspeople may add an element of seriousness and authority to them, or in another context it may downplay their stature by reducing them to their clothing.

Adding depth

Metonymy can add deeper meaning or complexity to a simple word choice. For example, the crown is often used as metonymy for the king or queen in a monarchy. That phrase, like the church, signifies a larger system or tradition.

Making it concise

As a general rule of thumb in writing, if you can say it more concisely, you should. Metonymy helps you cut down on wordy explanations by relying on a word’s associations and connotations.

Metonymy vs. synecdoche

Metonymy and synecdoche both replace one word with another, closely related, word. The difference is that with metonymy the replacement can be any related word, whereas with synecdoche, the replacement must be a specific part or portion. (Sometimes, synecdoche does the reverse and represents the whole with a part.) For example, the phrase “lend me a hand” is an example of synecdoche because a hand is a portion of the body that can offer assistance. Some people consider synecdoche a subcategory of metonymy since they’re so closely related.

Metonymy vs. metaphor

Both metonymy and metaphor use the substitution of one word for another. However, metonymy uses a word or phrase with a clear reference to its substitute. In a metaphor, the writer compares two unlike objects in order to draw out unusual or imaginative similarities.

Metonymy examples in literature

“Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears. —William Shakespeare, Julius Caesar

Marc Antony uses ears as metonymy for attention or listening.

“The probability would be that he and his shipmates would never again remember it, on account of all hands gently subsiding to the bottom. —Herman Melville, Moby Dick

Hands here is used as metonymy to represent all of the men on the ship.

“As I drift back into sleep, I can’t help thinking that it’s a wonderful thing to be right about the world. —Richard Russo, Straight Man

The world is metonymy for a specific fragment of the world—in this case, whatever is known to Russo’s narrator. This is also an example of synecdoche, substituting the whole for the part.

“When the press is absent, politicians have been known to cancel their speeches, civil rights marchers to postpone their parades, alarmists to withhold their dire predictions.” —Gay Talese, The Kingdom and the Power

The press is often used to signify either a group of journalists or the entire media industry.

Metonymy FAQs

What is metonymy?

Metonymy is a figure of speech in which a word is substituted for another word that it is closely associated with. For example, “the White House” is often used as a metonymy for the presidential administration.

How is metonymy different from metaphor and synecdoche?

All three literary devices use association between two different words. Metaphors give the reader a new sense of something by relating two unlike objects. Synecdoche is almost the same as metonymy, but it specifically substitutes a part for the whole (or, less frequently, the whole for a part).

What is the purpose of metonymy?

Metonymy is common in our everyday speech because it makes broad concepts briefer. It can be used by writers to create new imagery, add power to writing, and make complicated ideas more concise.

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