Friday, November 16, 2012

What Is Metonymy?

What is metonymy? It's when you refer to something not by its name, but instead by something very closely related to it. Hollywood is an example. How many times have you heard someone say Hollywood in reference to the American cinema industry? It's far more common than you think, and we reckon you probably use a metonym at least once a day... unless you have no friends.

The word metonymy comes from Greek, a combination of meta ("other") and onoma ("name"). There are several general types of relationships between words in which metonymy is found. These include:

Containment - When one thing contains (or holds) another thing. An example is the word book, which originally just meant a group of pages bound together at one side, but is now used to refer the works of literature it often contains.

Tools / Instruments - Sometimes tools are used to refer to the job they help do or the person who does them. The term jigsaw puzzle is a metonym because it uses jigsaw, the tool that was originally used to cut the interlocking pieces, to describe the type of puzzle.

Synecdoche - When a part of something is used to refer to the whole thing. For example, some people slangily refer to their entire vehicle as their wheels... as in "Nice wheels, bro!"

These are some classic wheels... what's cooler than a sidecar?

Toponyms - Toponym is just a fancy term for "place name". Sometimes toponyms are used to refer to the industries that are located there. As we mentioned earlier, Hollywood is an example since it is often used to refer to the American entertainment industry.

There are plenty of interesting metonyms out there, so here are some of our favorites.

arm - We hope you know what human limb this refers to, but it is also used metonymically to refer to throwing ability.

Nice arm!

Bollywood - Similar to Hollywood... it's a district of Mumbai, which is the center of the Hindi-language film industry.

china - We're talking about Chinese porcelain, which eventually became known by the same name as the country it comes from.

The Crown - This word for a monarch's headwear is also used to refer to the British monarchy.

damages - Originally defined as "destructive effects", it also refers to the money paid in compensation for such effects.

microwave - The appliance is technically called a "microwave oven", but people often just call it by the name of the electromagnetic waves it uses in order to cook things.

Scotland Yard - The original headquarters for London's Metropolitan Police, it also refers to the police themselves.

You can tell it's not Old Scotland Yard because it says so.

Silicon Valley - The term was originally coined to refer to a California valley full of silicon chip manufacturers, but eventually high-tech businesses surrounded the location. Now it's used to refer to the American high-tech sector.

toilet - In some places, toilet is used to refer to the room where the appliance of the same name resides.

tongue - The tongue is an important speech muscle, so it's only natural that it became another word for language!

This cat prefers to use its tongue to lick its whiskers...
and when you're not looking, its anus.

Wall Street - This street in New York City is considered the financial center of the U.S., hence its use to refer to American financial markets in general.

The White House - Often used to refer to its inhabitants, the U.S. President and his staff.

word - A unit of language. Used metonymically in phrases such as "I give you my word..." and "May I have a word with you?" to refer to a promise and a conversation, respectively. Word!

We'll have more metonymy for you next week in our post dedicated to synecdoches!