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Metonymy in Literature: Definition, Types & Examples

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  • 0:01 What Is Metonymy?
  • 0:54 Conventional Metonymy
  • 1:32 Antonomasia
  • 2:15 Synecdoche
  • 3:22 Lesson Summary
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Instructor: Kara Wilson

Kara Wilson is a 6th-12th grade English and Drama teacher. She has a B.A. in Literature and an M.Ed, both of which she earned from the University of California, Santa Barbara.

If you've ever heard the expression 'He can be such a Scrooge' or 'All hands on deck!' then you have heard examples of metonymy. We use metonymy to substitute someone or something for something else that's similar. In this lesson, we will look at different types of metonymy used in literature and some interesting examples.

What is Metonymy?

Metonymy is a figure of speech that refers to something or someone by naming one of its attributes. For example, we say expressions like I'm going to do a head count. Counting heads is actually counting people, but we use the word heads instead to refer to people by naming an attribute rather than saying the word people.

In short, metonymy helps us think about people and things in creative ways so that we recognize how they are sometimes so connected that you can substitute one thing for the other in a sentence.

There are three types of metonymy. All instances of metonymy involve using a word or phrase to replace another word or phrase with something similar. Conventional metonymy is the type of metonymy that's often heard in everyday language. Antonomasia and synecdoche are a bit tricker because their definitions can be reversed, so we'll focus more on them later.

Conventional Metonymy

A conventional metonymy is a metonymy that is commonly heard in everyday language. The previous example about a head count is an example of a conventional metonymy.

Greeting someone with: It's always nice to see a familiar face is a conventional metonymy because the word face actually refers to the person, but instead you are using that attribute in place of the word you.

Another example would be the expression: The pen is mightier than the sword. The pen is an attribute of thoughts written down while the sword is an attribute of acting with violence or with military action (depending on the context in which the expression is used).

Antonomasia

An antonomasia is when a title is used in place of a proper name OR when a proper name is used in place of a title. Either way, by using an antonomasia, you are saying that that person or group you're talking about shares the same attribute as the proper name used or referred to.

Talking about the Bard instead of saying William Shakespeare is an example of an antonomasia because the title the Bard is a poet who composed poetry about heroes and their deeds. This title is referring to Shakespeare and is used in place of his proper name.

Saying that someone is a Solomon is a way of saying that the person you're talking to is a wise ruler. The proper name Solomon labels that person instead of using a title like wise ruler.

Synecdoche

A synecdoche is when a part is used instead of the whole OR when the whole is used instead of the part. An example of a part being used as a whole would be fifty sail, instead of saying fifty ships because the sails are part of the ships.

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