“What is Metonymy?” A Guide for English Students and Teachers

To understand metonymy, it’s important to
watch Professor Tim Jensen’s video on metaphor first. Metaphor and metonymy are both types of figurative
language, in which the speaker or writer wants us to understand one thing by associating
it with something else. But those associations work differently for
metaphor and metonymy as well as for a third variation, synecdoche, on which you can also
find an Oregon State video. Metaphor is the easiest to understand and
the most common, so if you haven’t watched the metaphor video, go do that now. Having watched the video, I’m sure you’ll
agree with me that Jensen’s explanation is the bomb. [Explosion sound] You should recognize that as a metaphor – I
don’t mean that his video is going to literally explode, but I do mean that the qualities
associated with a bomb (it’s dramatic, it’s powerful, it’s in-your-face) represent the
edgy way Jensen teaches you the concept. In metaphor, the things you are comparing
have qualities in common, like a bomb and Professor Jensen’s teaching style. In metonymy, however, the things you are comparing
are actually not similar in terms of their qualities. Instead, you’re replacing the thing you
want to characterize with something associated with it but not physically or emotionally
like it. Here’s an example: let’s agree that we
are looking forward to the day when Hollywood discovers Professor Jensen to make TV infomercials. Obviously, the physical neighborhood of Hollywood,
Los Angeles, is not discovering anybody. When I say Hollywood, I really mean people
in the film and TV industries. You understand that I’m actually talking
about people even though I said the name of a place because you are super-familiar with
this common metonym, the one that replaces filmmakers with Hollywood. Here’s another example: after watching the
metaphor video, we could say that we should give Professor Jensen a hand. Do I mean that literally, that we should amputate
ourselves at the wrist and give him our severed hand? No. You automatically, without thinking about
it, make a metonymic substitution, understanding “hand” to mean “applause.” Like filmmakers and Hollywood, hands and applause
are associated with one another but aren’t like one another. That’s the difference between metonyms and
metaphors. There are dozens of classic examples in our
everyday language. The white house made a statement today: the
white house can’t talk, and the building isn’t like the President’s administration,
but symbolizes it associationally. Other classics: Victoria was the crown of
England. Danish is my mother tongue. Don’t let the man get you down. In those examples, crown, tongue, and man
are all metonyms. In literature, when you notice a metonym, perk up your ears. (Ears, there, is a metonym for attention.) When a writer uses metonymy, something interpretively
interesting is often happening. Emily Dickinson describes feeling drunk on
the beautiful qualities of a summer day: Inebriate of air – am I –
And Debauchee of Dew – Reeling – thro’ endless summer days –
From inns of molten blue The word “inns” here is a metonym. We are supposed to understand “inns of molten
blue” not as actual blue hotels but as the beautiful blue days she inhabits throughout
the summer. Dickinson’s joyous wordplay correlates to
her feeling creative, unrestrained, and free in her enjoyment of the world’s beauty. The metonym that replaces “days” with
“inns” represents the poet’s delight in connection, imagination, and inventiveness.

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