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Metonymy in Literature: Examples & Types

Lisa Baird, Kara Wilson
  • Author
    Lisa Baird

    Lisa Baird is a writer who teaches writing. After receiving her doctorate in Rhetoric and Composition from Texas Christian University, she has been developing writing curriculum for over twenty years.

  • 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.

Learn about metonymy and how it compares to other figures of speech. Discover metonymy examples in literature. Updated: 10/05/2021

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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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Metonymy: Definition

Poets and storytellers use figures of speech and imagery to create a picture in a reader's mind. One common figure of speech is metonymy, which means to change the name of something to a different, related name. A metonym is a word that implies or suggests a similarity between two ideas. For example, in the following statement, the word specter is a metonym: "Brian lay beneath the specter, wondering how its radiation would feel."

Like a specter, a machine can be frightening.

A masked face

Here, the use of the word specter suggests a similarity between a frightening machine that produces unseen radiation and a ghost or phantom that, also unseen, is menacing. Using specter instead of machine summons an image of a fearsome apparition in a reader's mind.

Storytellers also use metonymy to help readers see what characters see, to feel what characters feel. Poets use metonymy to infuse their writing with vividness, helping readers experience a poem rather than just read it. Poets and storytellers use metonymy to help readers connect their lives with what happens in a story or poem.

Antonomasia: Definition

A special use of metonymy is when an epithet or a nickname is used to suggest something about that person. This special use of metonymy is called antonomasia. For example, "Framers of the Constitution" is a short but picturesque title referring to all the delegates of the Constitutional Convention who drafted the founding documents of the United States. Rather than list all the delegates, "Framers of the Constitution" replaces the list with an image that shows the delegates setting forth guidelines (a framework) that would direct the young nation in matters of policy.

From time to time, everyone uses antonomasia without knowing its formal name. Someone might refer to a friend who can see far into the distance as "Eagle Eye," or a little girl with pretty locks as "child of silken hair." These examples show how antonomasia highlights a quality or characteristic that produces a picture in the imagination. Poets and novelists use antonomasia to suggest something charming or significant or real about a person or thing. Readers see that feature when they imagine a character or place or thing.

Sometimes antonomasia calls attention to a person who is part of a group and shares the same characteristics. The person can be part of a class of people but takes on the name of the group: A Buckeye is a person who cheers for the Ohio State Buckeyes.

Metonymy versus Synecdoche

Metonymy is like synecdoche in that both are figures of speech and both suggest similarities, but the two are different. A synecdoche refers to a part of something to suggest the whole. For instance, when all the sailors on an aircraft carrier are required to help land jets, officers will say, "All hands on deck." The word hands replaces sailors and suggests a picture of sailors' busy hands working on planes and equipment. Synecdoche works as a figure of speech because readers can see how a part of something, hands, suggests the whole, sailors.

Usually, a writer will choose a picturesque part of something to make the whole more vivid in a reader's mind. "I got my first set of wheels," a new driver might say. The word wheels is a synecdoche that stands for a whole car. It is more detailed, though, to refer to shiny hubcaps so listeners can picture that first car.

Metonymy versus Metaphor

Metonymy and metaphor are also similar. Both are figures of speech and both suggest a similarity between two ideas, but the two figures aren't quite the same. A metaphor works in readers' minds by establishing an equality between two ideas.

In the ancient Greek poem The Iliad (circa eighth century CE), when the poet Homer writes, "Achilles is a lion," he is writing metaphorically. Achilles isn't really a lion, but he's brave and fierce in battle. Metaphors help readers make an imaginative leap between the warrior, Achilles, and a ferocious lion. A metaphor suggests a natural similarity between a lion and Achilles, the warrior.

Like a metaphor, a metonym compares two things or ideas, though where a metaphor makes an explicit similarity, as in "Achilles is a lion," a metonym suggests similarity. For example, a student might say, "I have a mountain of homework to finish." The word mountain is a metonym because the figure of speech suggests a stack or pile or heap so big, the task of finishing so arduous, it is like climbing a mountain. A metonym requires a little more effort from readers than a metaphor because they must make a leap of the imagination between a heap of homework and a mountain, as well as between the arduous nature of climbing a mountain and doing homework.

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Frequently Asked Questions

What is metonymy in simple words?

Metonymy is a figure of speech which suggests a similarity exists between two things. It's like a metaphor but a metaphor states a similarity explicitly; metonymy implies a similarity.

What is an example of a metonymy?

Brian stared up at the specter of the machine, wondering what its radiation would feel like. 'Specter' is a metonym because it suggests a similarity between a scary machine and a frightening apparition.

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