Metonymy and synecdoche

Metonymy (Greek: “a change of name”)

If you have ever said ‘I have read all of J. K. Rowling’ you have used metonymy. Naturally, you have not read tattoos printed on her skin – what you mean by ‘all of Rowling’ is all her books, from the Harry Potter series onwards. In M. H. Abrams’ pithy phrase, ‘in metonymy, the literal term for one thing is applied to another with which it is closely associated, because of contiguity in common experience’ (A Glossary of Literary Terms). In other words this means that we use a reference to one thing to mean another thing closely related to the first one. J. K. Rowling is closely associated with her books, so if you ask someone whether they have read Rowling, they will immediately understand that you mean her literary production. Other examples could be ‘the crown’ for a queen or a king, ‘The White House’ for the American President, or ‘the shop’ when what you mean is in fact the people working there.

Just to clarify that last example: When you say

‘The shop is closed today,’ that is not a metonymy, but if you say

‘That shop has always treated me well,’ you probably don’t mean that the actual building has been nice to you, but the people working in it have been. This, then, is an example of metonymy.

Metonymy is a fairly common trait of everyday language, but it can of course be used in literature as well. One problem with metonymy which might seem to preclude its use in creative contexts is its reliance on convention. In order for one person to understand that ‘The White House’ means the President, they have to be familiar with the phrase, they have to know what The White House is and where it is, and so on. Metonymy therefore often makes an appearance in stock phrases such as ‘the pen is mightier than the sword’ (i.e. ‘the written word is more powerful than warfare/violence’). The danger of metonymy is therefore that it isn’t understood as heightened or literary language at all (it isn’t even noticed) or it might come across as clichĂ©, which is the last thing a writer wants. We will soon look at some examples of how metonymy is used in literature, but before we do so, we shall also take a quick look at the related concept of synecdoche.


Synecdoche (Greek: “taking together, understanding simultaneously”)

Synecdoche functions in a way similar to metonymy, but is limited to elements that belong to the same whole in one out of two ways: 1) a part is taken to signify the whole, or 2) the whole is meant to signify its parts. The latter usage is quite rare.

Some examples: we say ‘sails,’but we mean ‘ships,’ as in ‘at least ten sails were approaching the bay’. By stating that a family has ‘many mouths to feed,’ we mean that there are several people that need to eat. A barrel can be used as synecdoche for its contents, so that when we say ‘5.000.000 barrels were sold to Kuwait,’ it is implied that we are talking of a quantity of oil. As always, the context determines whether something is a figure of speech or not.

Confusingly, something can be both metonymy and synecdoche at the same time. For example, a ‘glass’ can be used as synecdoche for a unit of alcohol – by the same token as the oil barrels – but the close association between glass and alcohol (in certain contexts) makes it also an example of metonymy. To make the confusion complete, it is also worth remembering that metonymy and synecdoche are regarded by many as sub-types of metaphor, and not without justification.

In the context of semiotics, metonymy and synecdoche are primarily indexical because they rely on proximity of function or experience, or they are part of the same whole. For example, a “crown” indicates, or points to, a monarch. By the same token, “wheels” indicate that there must be a car.

In sum, then, similes are primarily iconic, metaphors are primarily symbolic and metonymy and synecdoche are primarily indexical.


Metonymy in practice

As stated, metonymy is part of everyday language, but that does not mean it cannot be made to serve literary purposes. In order for metonymy to be applied in a manner that goes beyond the mundane, a literary text can develop its own relationships. The clue is in Abrams’ ‘contiguity in common experience’. If one element in a piece of writing is frequently made to appear in conjunction with another, this might form a contiguity that may be defined as metonymic.

Let us look again at the first paragraph of Ernest Hemingway’s ‘In Another Country’.

In the fall the war was always there, but we did not go to it any more. It was cold in the fall in Milan and the dark came very early. Then the electric lights came on, and it was pleasant along the streets looking in the windows. There was much game hanging outside the shops, and the snow powdered in the fur of the foxes and the wind blew their tails. The deer hung stiff and heavy and empty, and small birds blew in the wind and the wind turned their feathers. It was a cold fall and the wind came down from the mountains.

In this passage, the operative noun in the very first sentence is ‘war’. It establishes without doubt that the main theme of the passage and the backdrop of the story as a whole is the experience of war (more precisely, it is World War I). Importantly, this passage does not employ either simile or metaphor. War is not directly compared with anything, nor does it undergo metaphoric substitution. In a general sense, it is metonymic, because war is made to appear alongside a number of terms with their own qualities, which are then understood to be related somehow to the experience of war. As we have seen in an earlier analysis of the passage, these terms include, ‘fall,’ ‘wind,’ ‘cold,’ ‘dark,’ ‘snow’ and so on. In order to understand how this is a relationship that rests on metonymy, we need to look at how it isn’t metaphor or simile. Here are some sentences Hemingway could have chosen to write, but which he didn’t:

  • War is like a cold, windy fall.

  • The constant wind that came down from the mountains acted as a reminder of the war that went on still, not that far from us.

Both of these are examples of simile. And in both cases, war is actively compared to something else. This is easy to tell because of the use of the words ‘like’ and ‘as’.

Alternatively, Hemingway could have written:

  • Wounded soldiers are dead foxes or dead deer hanging outside a shop in the cold, windy evening, gutted and empty.

  • I, a soldier, am a bird blown about by cold winds.

These are examples of metaphor, in which ‘a word or expression which in literal usage denotes one kind of thing or action is applied to a distinctly different kind of thing or action, without asserting comparison’ (Abrams). In a way this passage does rely on metaphoricity, but metonymy is probably a more precise and telling characterisation of its style.

As we can see, the choice between simile, metaphor and metonymy plays an extremely important role for the feeling, mood, style and aesthetic identity of a work of literature. Exchanging the metonymic approach of Hemingway for a style based on simile or metaphor would amount to more than a mere cosmetic alteration; it would profoundly alter the whole short story.

The diction, syntax and imagery of a piece of literature is not arbitrary or decorative, but serves a deeper purpose, as these things make up the very fabric of the work itself. For example, in the case of this short story, we have seen that it generates an image of a detached and disrupted mental state – there is a strong identification between the mental state of the narrator (who appears to suffer from PTSD) and the feel and rhythm of the prose. The metonymy that its imagery consists of is looser and more free-flowing than the very strong connections of simile or the assertive convictions of metaphor. It is exactly this barely connected string of associations between ‘war’ on the one hand, and ‘fall,’ ‘cold,’ ‘wind,’ etc. that creates the particular effect of ‘In Another Country’.

Metonymy can be a much more subtle form of figurative language than simile or metaphor, and might be harder to discover in a literary text, because this text has to create its own associations between objects or actions. It is possible to imagine a more straightforwardly descriptive version of Hemingway’s opening paragraph, containing many of the same elements, but featuring more humdrum diction and syntax. It would go something like this:

In the fall of 1917 I was wounded and had to leave the battlefield to stay at a hospital in Milan, during what was looking to become a windy, snowy and cold winter. Despite the cold, which seemed to bother the birds, there was electric light and much game to be bought from the shops, like fox-pelts and deer meat.

This much shorter paraphrase is quite dull by comparison with Hemingway’s original, on account of its neutral language and resistance to extended description. But the paradox is this: even though it contains many of the same elements (‘war,’ ‘wind,’ ‘snow,’ ‘cold,’ ‘birds,’ ‘dead animals’), it has none of the original’s power. And that is because the connections between these elements have ceased to exist. Yes, there are sentences, and yes, these sentences appear to contain the required words, but somehow the metonymy has disappeared.

We understand that without some form of syntactical, rhythmical patterning, literary effects may be less likely to exist. Words gain their power from where they appear, how often they appear, and the other words with which they are kept company – and this is true of all literary genres, as well as ones that fall outside many definitions of literature, such as political speeches, lectures, sermons and letters.

Here we might pause to look at an excercise that involves everything we have learned so far. If you wish to do it later, you will find it also on the Summary and Advice page.

The final trope we shall look at is irony.

Next: Irony