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This page Metonymy is part of the linguistics series. Illustration: a close-up of a mouth in the film The Big Swallow (1901)
This page Metonymy is part of the linguistics series.
Illustration: a close-up of a mouth in the film The Big Swallow (1901)

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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.
Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.

Metonymy is the use of a single characteristic or name of an object to identify an entire object or related object.

In rhetoric, metonymy is the use of a word for a concept with which the original concept behind this word is associated. Metonymy may be instructively contrasted with metaphor. Both figures involve the substitution of one term for another. While in metaphor this substitution is based on similarity, in metonymy the substitution is based on contiguity.

Metaphor example: The ship plowed through the sea. (plowed instead of navigated)

Metonymy example: The sails crossed the ocean. (sails instead of ship with sails)

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.

Metonymy compared to metaphor in cognitive science and linguistics

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.

Metonymy works by the contiguity (association) between two concepts, 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 press-like about reporters or crown-like about a monarch, but "the press" and "the crown" are both common metonyms.

Two examples using the term "fishing" help make the distinction better (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, and do not originate from, 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 he or she is 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.

Example: "Lend me your ear"

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, the phrase "lend me your ear" 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 — imagine that the speaker literally borrows the listener's ear as a physical object (and presumably the person's head with it). Then the speaker has temporary possession of the listener's ear, so the listener has granted the speaker temporary control over what the listener hears. We then interpret the phrase "lend me your ear" metaphorically to mean that the speaker wants the listener to grant the speaker temporary control over what the listener hears.
  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 part 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.

See also

Unless indicated otherwise, the text in this article is either based on Wikipedia article "Metonymy" or another language Wikipedia page thereof used under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License; or on original research by Jahsonic and friends. See Art and Popular Culture's copyright notice.

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