Metonymy in a Nutshell

MetonymyPost written by Jeannette Littlemore, author of Metonymy

Metonymy is a kind of shorthand that people use all the time but don’t always think about that much, which is a shame because, when used well, metonymy can have significant persuasive powers and when used badly, can lead to severe misunderstandings. In a nutshell, metonymy is a process whereby one entity is used to refer to another. For example, in the UK we use the term ‘Number 10’ to refer to the Government, whereas in the USA it’s ‘the White House’; and in South Korea, it’s the ‘Blue House’. All of these examples involve a metonymic relationship in which a place stands for an institution. However, this is not the only kind of metonymic relationship. There are many others. The word ‘Hoover’ can be used metonymically to mean vacuum cleaner, via a producer for product relationship, or we might say that we ‘need a drink’, to refer specifically to alcoholic drink, which would evoke a whole for part metonymic relationship. We might say that we need ‘some muscle’, when what we need is a strong person to help us move some furniture, thus evoking a defining property for category metonymic relationship, and so on and so forth.

Unlike metaphor, which usually involves a comparison between two unrelated entities, metonymy is a process whereby one thing is used to refer to something else, to which it is closely related or even forms part of. The best way to illustrate this is with an authentic example such as the following from the ‘Bank of English’ (BofE) corpus:

Do you want me to pencil you in for the time being?

In this example, ‘pencil you in’ is used metonymically to mean ‘make a provisional appointment’. The secretary offers to write the appointment in pencil rather than pen so that the customer can make last minute changes if necessary. ‘Pencil in’ thus stands metonymically for what one might do with a pencil (i.e. write something down which can subsequently be erased).

This example is typical of the way in which metonymy is used in everyday language as a kind of communicative shorthand, allowing people to use their shared knowledge of the world to communicate with fewer words than they would otherwise need. In this particular example, metonymy serves a mainly referential purpose, but it can be used for a wide variety of communicative functions, such as relationship-building, humour, irony and euphemism.

Metonymic meanings can be very subtle and easily missed, especially in communication between people with different linguistic or cultural backgrounds.

In my new book with Cambridge University Press, Metonymy: Hidden Shortcuts in Language, Thought and Communication, I explore and discuss its relationship with metaphor. I then move on to discuss the various models that have been proposed within Cognitive Linguistics to explain how metonymy operates, and highlight the benefits of each. In the book, I outline some of the key functions that metonymy performs in various forms of expression (language, gesture, art, film, dance and music), whilst maintaining a key focus on metonymy as a first and foremost cognitive process, which leave sits traces in these various forms of expression. After having briefly discussed difficulties in identifying metonymy, I examine the extant research into the neuro-linguistic processing of metonymy. Finally, I look at variations and similarities in the ways in which metonymy manifests itself across these different modes of expression and across different languages and cultures. The book is illustrated throughout with real-world examples of metonymy in different forms of expression.

Find out more on Jeannette Littlemore’s book Metonymy, published by Cambridge University Press.

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