In literature, we conceive of almost everything through metaphor. Metonymy is a derivative of metaphor as it is a type of figurative language. It is a figure of speech where the name of an idea or thing is substituted for another name that the original name is closely associated with. Often, the name that substitutes is related or a part of the original thing. For example, when a news anchor announces “Trouble on Wall Street today,” he is referring to the stock market, not the actual street. “Wall Street” is another name for the American stock market. In literature, authors will often use metonymy in different and unexpected ways. Some of the more famous examples of metonymy have become a part of everyday speech.
In William Shakespeare’s “Julius Caesar,” Antony declares, “Friends, Romans, Countrymen, lend me your ears.” Readers cannot read the phrase “lend me your ears” literally, as Antony is not expecting his listeners to physically hand over their ears. This makes the statement metaphorical. It is also an example of metonymy because “ears” represents the idea of listening. Ears and very closely related to hearing and listening, so “lend me your ears” is simply a substitute, or another way of saying, “listen.” This phrase was so popular that it has become a regular part of everyday speech in the English language.
“Out, Out” by Robert Frost
Frost’s poem “Out, Out” narrates the gory incident of a boy losing his hand, and subsequently his life, in a wood-chopping accident. The speaker of the poem writes that life is spilling out of the boy. “Life” can not physically “spill out” of a person, blood does. Frost plays with the connection between “life” and “blood,” even though it is clearly blood that the boy is losing, as an extreme loss of blood leads to a loss of life. The speaker’s choice of the word “life” allows for a less explicit and more meaningful description of the event.
The Bible contains many figures of speech and examples of metonymy. Chapter three verse 19 of Genesis reads, “By the sweat of your brow, you will eat your food,” using metonymy illustrate how difficult obtaining food will be, for it will now requires sweat. People do not literally obtain food by sweating: sweat is another word for laboring. In this example, God offers Adam and Eve a vivid picture of the consequence for their actions. The use of metonymy emphasizes the extreme nature of their punishment.
Gone With the Wind
Scarlett O’Hara pouts to the Tarleton twins in “Gone With the Wind”: “I’m mighty glad Georgia waited till after Christmas before it seceded or it would have ruined the Christmas parties.” By “Georgia,” Scarlett refers to everything that makes up a state: politicians, generals, citizens -- the state itself is not seceding. Using a country’s name to refer to the whole nation, or just the government, is common in politics.
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- Metaphors We Live By; George Lakoff and Mark Johnson
- SIL International: What is metonymy?
- University of North Carolina at Pembroke: Glossary of Literary Terms
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