The pen is mightier than the sword

Metonymy [mi-ton-uh-mee] is a figure of speech used in rhetoric (the art of discourse) in which a thing or concept is not called by its own name, but by the name of something intimately associated with that thing or concept.

Metonyms can be either real or fictional concepts representing other concepts real or fictional, but they must serve as an effective and widely understood second name for what they represent. For instance, ‘Hollywood’ is used as a metonym (an instance of metonymy) for the US cinema industry, because of the fame and cultural identity of Hollywood, a district of the city of Los Angeles, as the historical center of film studios and film stars.

Another example is ‘Westminster,’ which is used as a metonym for the Parliament of the United Kingdom, because it is located there. A third example showing a different version of metonymy is the fictional character Scrooge McDuck’s ‘money bin’ or indeed Scrooge himself, often used in Disney works and parody works as metonymous with wealth – most currency in the modern era is now stored electronically, but the money bin is still drawn in comics and persists as a pop culture metonym for any financial holding of great value.

The word come from the Greek for ‘a change of name.’ Metonymy also may be instructively contrasted with metaphor. Both figures involve the substitution of one term for another. In metaphor, this substitution is based on some specific similarity, whereas, in metonymy, the substitution is based on some understood association (contiguity). Metonymy works by the contiguity (association) between two concepts, whereas metaphor works by the similarity between them. When people use metonymy, they do not typically wish to transfer qualities from one referent to another as they do with metaphor: there is nothing press-like about reporters or crown-like about a monarch, but ‘the press’ and ‘the crown’ are both common metonyms. Of course, metaphors reside in every metonymical phrase, and thus the relationship between ‘a crown’ and a ‘king’ could be interpreted metaphorically (e.g. ‘the king, like his gold crown, could be seemingly stiff yet ultimately malleable, over-ornate, and consistently immobile’).

Two examples using the term ‘fishing’ help clarify the distinction. The phrase ‘to fish pearls’ uses metonymy, drawing from ‘fishing’ the idea of taking things from the ocean. What is carried across from ‘fishing fish’ to ‘fishing pearls’ is the domain of metonymy. In contrast, the metaphorical phrase ‘fishing for information’ transfers the concept of fishing into a new domain. If someone is ‘fishing’ for information, we do not imagine that the person is anywhere near the ocean; rather, we transpose elements of the action of fishing (waiting, hoping to catch something that cannot be seen, probing) into a new domain (a conversation). Thus, metaphor works by presenting a target set of meanings and using them to suggest a similarity between items, actions, or events in two domains, whereas metonymy calls up or references a specific domain (here, removing items from the sea).

There are several broad kinds of relationships where metonymy is frequently used: Containment (when one thing contains another, it can frequently be used metonymically, as when ‘dish’ is used to refer not to a plate but to the food it contains, or as when the name of a building is used to refer to the entity it contains, as when ‘the White House’ or ‘the Pentagon’ are used to refer to the presidential staff or the military); Tools/Instruments (often a tool is used to signify the job it does or the person who does the job, as in the phrase ‘the press,’ or as in the idiom, ‘The pen is mightier than the sword’); Synecdoche (when a part of something is often used for the whole, as when people refer to ‘head’ of cattle or assistants are referred to as ‘hands’); and Toponyms (a country’s capital city is frequently used as a metonym for the country’s government, such as Washington, D.C. in the United States — similarly, other important places, such as Wall Street and Hollywood are commonly used to refer to the industries that are located there).

The concept of metonymy also informs the nature of polysemy, i.e., how the same phonological form (word) has different semantic mappings (meanings). If the two meanings are unrelated, as in the word pen meaning both writing instrument and enclosure, they are considered homonyms. Within logical polysemies, a large class of mappings may be considered to be a case of metonymic transfer (e.g., chicken for the animal, as well as its meat; crown for the object, as well as the institution). Other cases wherein the meaning is polysemous, however, may turn out to be more metaphorical, e.g., eye as in the eye of the needle.

Metonymy also may refer to the rhetorical strategy of describing something indirectly, by referring to things contiguous to it, in either time or space. For example, in Jane Austen’s novel ‘Pride and Prejudice,’ the main character Elizabeth’s change of heart and love for her suitor, Mr. Darcy, is first revealed when she sees his house: ‘They gradually ascended for half-a-mile, and then found themselves at the top of a considerable eminence, where the wood ceased, and the eye was instantly caught by Pemberley House, situated on the opposite side of a valley, into which the road with some abruptness wound. It was a large, handsome stone building, standing well on rising ground, and backed by a ridge of high woody hills; and in front, a stream of some natural importance was swelled into greater, but without any artificial appearance. Its banks were neither formal nor falsely adorned. Elizabeth was delighted. She had never seen a place for which nature had done more, or where natural beauty had been so little counteracted by an awkward taste.’

Austen describes the house and Elizabeth’s admiration for the estate at length as an indirect way of describing her feelings for Mr. Darcy. One could attempt to read this as an extended metaphor, but such a reading would break down as one tried to find a way to map the elements of her description (rising ground, swollen river) directly to attributes of her suitor. Furthermore, an extended metaphor typically highlights the author’s ingenuity by maintaining an unlikely similarity to an unusual degree of detail.

In this description, on the other hand, although there are many elements of the description that we could transfer directly from the grounds to the suitor (natural beauty, lack of artifice), Austen is emphasizing the consistency of the domain of use rather than stretching to make a fresh comparison: each of the things she describes she associates with Darcy, and in the end we feel that Darcy is as beautiful as the place to which he is compared and that he belongs within it. Metonymy of this kind, thus, helps define a person or thing through a set of mutually reinforcing associations rather than through a comparison. Advertising frequently uses this kind of metonymy, putting a product in close proximity to something desirable in order to make an indirect association that would seem crass if made with a direct comparison.

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