The Bedford Glossary of Critical and Literary Terms - Ross Murfin 2018


Metonymy: From the Greek for “change of name,” a figure of speech (more specifically a trope) in which one thing is represented by another that is commonly and often physically associated with it. In metonymy, the vehicle (the image used to represent something else) substitutes for the tenor (the thing being represented). Metonymy is distinguished from synecdoche, a trope in which a part of something is used to represent the whole (or, occasionally, the whole is used to represent a part). Referring to someone’s handwriting as his or her “hand,” or calling a monarch “the crown,” involves metonymy, whereas referring to a boat as a “sail” involves synecdoche.

Certain structuralists, such as Roman Jakobson (e.g., Fundamentals of Language, coauthored with Morris Halle [1956]), have emphasized the difference between metonymy and metaphor, a trope in which two distinct things are associated or equated (for example, silence and gold in the phrase “silence is golden”). Such theorists argue that metonymy merely entails a contiguous association between tenor and vehicle, whereas metaphor involves an intrinsic similarity.

Other contemporary critics, particularly those associated with deconstruction, maintain that all figuration is arbitrary, and thus that the vehicles of metonyms and metaphors alike are arbitrarily (rather than intrinsically) associated with their tenors. In addition, deconstructors including Paul de Man and J. Hillis Miller have questioned the privilege that structuralists grant to metaphor — commonly viewed as the most significant of the five principle tropes — and have challenged the metaphor / metonymy distinction or “opposition,” suggesting that all metaphors are really metonyms.

FURTHER EXAMPLES: The opening line of the Pledge of Allegiance, “I pledge allegiance to the flag,” exhibits metonymy, given that the flag is used to represent the United States of America. “The pen is mightier than the sword,” an aphorism from Edward Bulwer-Lytton’s play Richelieu (1839), metonymically uses “pen” to represent the power of writing and “sword” to represent military force. The first sentence of George Eliot’s Adam Bede (1859), in which a “drop of ink” represents the author’s words, similarly involves metonymy:

With this drop of ink at the end of my pen, I will show you the roomy workshop of Mr. Jonathan Burge, carpenter and builder, in the village of Hayslope, as it appeared on the eighteenth of June, in the year of our Lord 1799.

In Shirley Hazzard’s The Transit of Venus (1980), a character remarks, “Paul Ivory is marrying that castle,” meaning that Paul — engaged to a daughter of an English lord — is marrying neither a building nor a woman but, rather, the British aristocracy, with all the rights and liabilities that pertain.