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The purpose of a metonymy is generally to focus the rhetorical emphasis of a reference to an object on a specific quality of that object. For example, one might call a psychiatrist a whitecoat; this would be a metonymy whose purpose would be to call attention to the abstract and/or mechanical aspect of the work of the psychiatrist, as opposed to the more human or emotional dimension of the profession.  

Definition of metonymy

Metonymy is a figure of speech consisting of the use of the name of one thing for that of another. The second thing is an attribute or thing that is associated with the first thing. Metonymy is often confused with synecdoche, which refers to something by the name of one of its parts. In metonymy, however, the word used is closely linked to or often found near the thing we are referring to, but it is not technically a part of it. Metonymy is derived from the Latin word metonymia and from the Greek metōnumia which means literally ‘change of name.’ Its first known use was in 1547.


Metonymy is also often confused with metaphor, which is a resemblance between two different things, such as “You are sunlight and I moon” from the musical Miss Saigon. An example of metonymy would be referring to a businessman as a “suit.” Here are some more examples:

“Let me give you a hand, there.” 

Here, hand means “help,” but usually “hand” means merely “hand.”

“Lend me an ear.” 

The speaker is not literally asking for people to lend him their ears, as that would be impossible, or painful at the very least.  Instead, this phrase is metonymy because lending an ear is the same as listening. So the speaker is asking that the audience listen to what is said next.

In Gone with the Wind by Margaret Mitchell, Scarlett O’Hara states, “I’m mighty glad Georgia waited till after Christmas before it seceded or it would have ruined the Christmas parties.”

Scarlett is using “Georgia” to refer to everything and everyone who makes up the state of Georgia.

Functions of metonymy

The function of metonymy is used to develop literary symbolism, giving more profound meaning to otherwise standard ideas and things. Literary texts which use metonymy can delve deeper into the semantics of human languages and the manner in which thoughts are connected. Metonymy also helps conciseness, allowing the user to group together many things under the umbrella of one term in either speech or written word. Metonymy also adds color and vivid symbolism to ordinary words in writing or poetry.

Here are some additional examples of metonymy:

Using “Wall Street” to refer to the United States financial and corporate sector instead of just the street by that name in New York City. “Hollywood” is often used to refer to the entire non-independent film industry, and not just the city by that name in California. In politics, the term “Washington” is used to refer to the entire United States government.

Although they are a bit different, both synecdoche and metalepsis are considered to be two specific types of metonymy. In addition, polysemy, multiple meanings of a single word or phrase, sometimes results from relations of metonymy. Metonymy literally substitutes a word or phrase for another word or phrase in language, based upon a generally understood association or contiguity.  

The famous American literary theorist Kenneth Burke noted that metonymy is one of the “four master tropes” which include metaphor, synecdoche, and irony. In his book A Grammar of Motives, Burke described these tropes in detail, describing the ways in which they overlap each other often. 

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