Your neighbor Kezia has just gotten a new job in finance and her family is having a dinner party to celebrate. Kezia's mother stands up to make a toast and says, “Lend me your ears, everyone! I’d like to thank my friends for giving me a hand with this dish. Most importantly, I’d like to congratulate Kezia on her new position with the suits on Wall Street!”
When you are listening to this speech, you know that Kezia’s mother isn’t literally asking each of the guests to physically remove their ears from their bodies and give them to her! Everyone knows that we use our ears to hear, so they are closely related to the concept of listening. Thus, Kezia’s mother can use this phrase as a replacement for “Listen up!” or “Pay attention!" without fearing that anyone will misunderstand her. In this example, “ears” is a metonym for “listen” or “attention.”
Definition of Metonymy
Metonymy is a figure of speech that substitutes one word or phrase for another with which it is closely associated. The comparison created is built on the relatedness of the thing and its new name. The new word or phrase is called the metonym, and it must be conceptually related to the original.
The word metonymy came into the English language from the classical Latin word “metōnymia,” which translates to “change of name.” The oldest surviving definition of metonymy in Latin is in the Rhetorica ad Herennium, a book on rhetoric written in the late 80s B.C. The definition has remained relatively the same since this first mention. However, the types of associations that metonymy utilizes are unique to a given culture and language. Thus, the metonyms the people of prehistory used in Latin will be different than those that we use today in English. For example, hundreds of years ago, societies called people by the primary tool they used in their occupation, such as how people who operated mills received the surname Miller. This type of association is no longer possible in our naming system.
Since metonymies are based on cultural concepts, you may not even notice you’re using or hearing one. For example, Wall Street is a street in New York City that has been the home of many brokerages and investment banks. Because of this, many Americans refer to the entire U.S. financial industry as “Wall Street.” Thus, Kezia’s new job on Wall Street may not actually be located on Wall Street at all. This use of figurative language would probably confuse someone who isn’t familiar with American finance.
This issue becomes particularly pertinent in media coverage. Journalists often use metonymy in their newspaper titles in order to be more concise. However, the brevity of metonymy can create ambiguity. For example, a reporter may say, “The White House issued a statement today.” This is a metonymy because the building we call the White House didn’t say anything, but we substitute this phrase for the names of the people who work for the executive government. Using this metonymy leaves us unclear about who exactly issued the statement: was it the president, the press secretary, the vice president, or someone else? When you notice that a metonymy is imprecise, you should question whether or not it was intended, and why. Doing so will prepare you to carefully consider the meaning and implications of the metonymies that you create in your own work.
Although there are commonplace metonymies, you can get creative by making your own--as long as you keep in mind the audience’s understanding of the conceptual connections between the name and its metonymic substitute. Using metonymies in this way can allow you to bring attention to associations not suggested by the literal name. It can also help you avoid repetition, or even sound punchier by creating alliteration and other prosodic features in your speech.