Metonymy: Definition & Examples

Instructor: J.R. Hudspeth

Jackie has taught college English and Critical Thinking and has a Master's degree in English Rhetoric and Composition

Metonymy is a figure of speech that talks about an idea by using a word that is closely related to that idea. Read on to find out more about how metonymy is defined, and see some examples of this figure of speech in action!


Metonymy gives us a way to talk about big ideas by using an image, concept, or thing that is related to the big idea to stand in for the idea itself. It's a figure of speech that can be found on the news, in literature and in everyday speech.


Let's take one example. If you watch the world news, you may hear a news anchor say something like this:

Today, the White House made a statement about reforming immigration laws.

Now, the actual White House itself did not literally make a statement. Instead, the anchor uses the White House to represent the people who work in the White House and are a part of the executive branch of government.

The use of metonymy makes for a much easier and less confusing way to talk about the government in the above example, which is one reason that we often use it when writing or talking. Without metonymy, the news anchor would have to say something like this:

Today, the president, his advisers, and the people who work in the executive branch of government made a statement about reforming immigration laws.

Another example of metonymy is the famous saying:

The pen is mightier than the sword.

This example does not mean that a literal pen is mightier than a literal sword; in an actual fight, the person holding the sword would probably win! Instead, this example of metonymy is figurative - it uses the idea of a pen to stand in for the written word, and it uses the idea of the sword to stand in for fighting, combat, or even the military.

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