What Is Metonymy? | Definition & Examples

Rhetoric updated on  December 6, 2023 3 min read
Metonymy is a figure of speech in which a word is replaced with another word closely associated with the original concept, such as “love” with “heart.”

Metonymy is used to create vivid imagery, add layers of meaning to a text, and convey ideas in a concise way. It’s commonly used in literature, newspaper headlines, and everyday speech.

Metonymy examples
Swedish is my mother tongue.
The White House declined to comment.
Tom’s favorite dish is mac and cheese.
They had a Monet hanging on their wall, and they didn’t know.

The use of metonymy is common in literature and in everyday conversations, but it should be avoided in academic writing or professional communication.

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What is metonymy?

Metonymy is a rhetorical device (or trope) in which we refer to an idea or object by using another word that is related to it. The word that replaces the original one is called a metonym. For example, “suits” is a metonym for “business people.”

In literature, writers use metonymy to express an idea or thought in an original, poetic way that avoids repetition. For example, a writer might substitute a specific image for an abstract concept, like “cradle” to mean “birth.” This can help to add variety to their writing and make it more engaging.

However, metonymy is also common in everyday language, both written and spoken. In fact we often use metonymy in idiomatic phrases without noticing it. For example, we use metonymy when we ask someone “to lend a hand,” or when we refer to earning money as “putting bread on the table.”

Metonymy vs. synecdoche

Metonymy and synecdoche are both literary devices that use a word or phrase as a substitute for another word or phrase. However, they are not exactly the same.

While metonymy replaces a general idea or object with a related term, synecdoche uses a part of something to signify the whole (or vice versa, representing the whole with a part). With synecdoche, the relationship between the original word and its stand-in is much more precise: the stand-in is part of the word or idea it represents.

For example, referring to your car as “wheels” is synecdoche because wheels are a part of a car. On the other hand, “ride” is metonymy because it is a word associated with cars and driving in general, not a part of a car.

Because metonymy and synecdoche are so closely related, some sources consider synecdoche a subcategory of metonymy. However, there is no general consensus about this.

Metonymy examples

The table below contains some common metonyms.

Metonymy

Meaning

Example

The big screen

Cinema

The book was adapted for the big screen

Silicon Valley

US tech industry

Silicon Valley has always attracted top talent with flashy perks.

The Crown

The monarch

Naturalized citizens have to take an oath of allegiance to the Crown.

Heart

Passion or energy

She is the type of person who really puts her heart into her work.

The press

The media/publicity

His latest movie got a lot of bad press.

Rags-to-riches

A change in fortune (from poverty to wealth)

Many self-made billionaires are depicted as rags-to-riches success stories.

Dish

Meal

What's your favorite dish?

Wall Street

The financial markets

Wall Street is anxious about the new tax regulations.

Brain

Intelligence

He is the brain behind the whole organization.

Worksheet: Metonymy vs. synecdoche

You can test your understanding of the difference between metonymy and synecdoche with the worksheet below. Choose whether each sentence contains an example of metonymy or synecdoche
Do you want to know more about common mistakes, commonly confused words, rhetorical devices, or other language topics? Check out some of our other language articles full of examples and quizzes.


Common mistakes

US vs UK

Rhetoric

Irregardless vs regardless

Burnt or burned

Situational irony

Lable or label

Dreamed or dreamt

Trope

Now a days or nowadays

Kneeled or knelt

Metaphor

Every time or everytime

Smelled or smelt

Consonance

Alot or a lot

Travelling or traveling

Rhyme


Frequently asked questions about metonymy

What is an example of metonymy?

An example of metonymy is the phrase “the pen is mightier than the sword.”

Here, “the pen” is used to refer to writing, while “the sword” is used to refer to warfare and violence. In other words, it means that the written word is more effective than physical force.

What is the difference between metonymy and metaphor?

Metonymy and metaphor are both types of figurative language that relate one thing to another. However, they are not the same and should not be confused.

  • Metonymy involves replacing a word or phrase with another one with which it is closely related (e.g., “ride” instead of “car”).
  • Metaphor involves making a comparison between two seemingly unrelated things (e.g., “my life is a train wreck”).

In other words, metonymy is based on the association between two things, while metaphor is based on a comparison between two unlike things.


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Kassiani

Kassiani has an academic background in Communication, Bioeconomy and Circular Economy. As a former journalist she enjoys turning complex information into easily accessible articles to help others.

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