There’s a commonly deployed linguistic device with a fancy Greek name — metonymy.  Metonymy is using an attribute or a part of something to refer to the thing itself. Here are some examples:

  • All hands are to report to the bridge immediately.  (hands stands in for personnel)
  • She had his ear for fifteen minutes. (ear stands in for attention, implying the presence of a thinking person)
  • They’ve got boots on the ground.  (boots stands in for soldiers)
  • He doesn’t aspire to be a suit.  (suit stands in for business executive)
  • These lands were given to them by the Crown. (Crown stands in for a ruling monarch who would wear such an adornment)

In addition to body and clothing parts, locations are often used as stand-ins for the social institutions they are associated with:

  • He was obsessed with the stage. (stage stands in for the world of theater productions)
  • They lost a lot of money at the track.  (track stands in for the enterprise of horse racing)
  • The White House issued a statement. (White House stands in for the President of the United States and associates)
  • Rome was not pleased. (Rome stands in for the political ruling body dwelling there)

More examples related to communication and its attributes.

  • They did not understand his strange tongue. (tongue stands in for a human language)
  • She gave me her word. (word stands in for a promise, an act of communication)

Notice that all of the metonyms illustrated above stand in for humans, or human-related activities and institutions. I found reference to a phrase ‘sixty keels ploughing through the deep’, where ‘keels’ stands in for ‘sailing ships’.  Human activity is implied, just as it is when artifacts stand in for musicians: ‘the horns will stand behind the strings’.  In both cases humans are manipulating human-made artifacts, ships and musical instruments, even though in the first case the part stands in for a whole artifact and in the second case, an artifact stands in for a person controlling that artifact.

Is metonymy ever used to reference things and processes in the world that don’t relate to humans and human activities? Can you say ‘a lot of feathers in the sky today’ and people will know you mean ‘birds flying or migrating’?  Is ‘a lot of wings in the sky today’  any better?  We have the expression ‘the sticks’  meaning ‘the countryside’, but is that a metonymic relationship? It could be if  ‘stick’ is slang for ‘tree’.  But, what about ‘he moved back to the bricks’? Does that work?

Here are some basic categories of things. I’ve made a stab at metonymic relations for them. You be the judge. And, if you have some examples, please send them along. I’m currently of the opinion that we are using this device mostly in regards to people. It would be interesting to know how things work for other languages, such as Spanish, Russian or Chinese.

  • natural objects such as mountains, stars, planets, islands, oceans, rivers, canyons  (can ‘the peaks’ refer to whole mountains, or does it imply just the tops? If the latter, it’s not metonymic. What does ‘he spent years on the waves’ mean? Is it clearly a reference to ocean or sea?)
  • natural activities such as earthquakes, hurricanes, blizzards, fires, landslide  (We speak of ‘a blow’ which refers to wind, a component of a hurricane or other big storm. It can imply just wind without precipitation however.)
  • flora and fauna such as flowers, forests, fish, insects, dogs, cats, bacteria  (‘Her garden has a lot of petals’  ‘We caught some gills with bait’ ‘That hotel allows paws in the rooms’  Do the preceding sentences succeed in referring to ‘flowers’ ‘fish’ and ‘dogs’ (or ‘cats’)?
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3 Responses to Parts

  1. bbear says:

    There’s another, somewhat narrower figure, synecdoche, which may serve this discussion. It refers to the substitution of words representing a subset or a superset of the original. Thus, for example, a part for the whole (as fifty sail for fifty ships), the whole for a part (as the smiling year for spring), the species for the genus (as cutthroat for assassin), the genus for the species (as a creature for a man), or the name of the material for the thing made (as willow for bat). [Examples are from Webster’s Third Unabridged — the subset/superset language is mine]…

    So the synecdochic usages are a subset of the metonymic ones, which require only an association. A dozen stems, as flower sellers sometimes refer to roses is synecdoche and therefore metonymy. But using the First Lady for the President’s wife is metonymy without being synecdoche…

    One of the commonest (in both senses) applications of these tropes is in profanity, where we characterize others as various body cavities and appendages, frequently amalgamated into portmanteau words…

    Anyway, I can think of a couple of nature metonyms:

    the stars for the universe
    the deep for the sea
    a bow-wow for a dog 😉

    Aren’t all euphemisms metonyms? Look at all the ones about death: the end, final exit, crossing over. Or sex: sleeping together, hooking up, going all the way. Or bodily functions…

    • achouston says:

      Insightful examples from nature – thanks! I’m wondering a bit about euphemisms as a general class of metonyms, though. Is ‘exit’ or ‘passed’ really in a part-relation to ‘death’, for example? Or are such terms perceived as ‘toned down’ because they have other non-death references in the world?

  2. bbear says:

    Well, see, what I’m saying is Webster’s doesn’t mandate the part/whole thing for metonymy. That’s synecdoche, but metonymy is broader. “[T]he name of one thing for that of something else with which it is associated . . . use of one word for another that it may be expected to suggest,” says my dictionary…

    You raise an interesting point about what’s so euphemistic about euphemism. Maybe some of it is ambiguity — ‘sleeping together’ can be innocent. But word choice can carry hidden complexities too; words (and non-verbal sounds generally) have a kind of covert bandwidth, fed by timbre and association and memory, the way an old song can put us back into a half-forgotten place from long ago. So, for example, ‘crossing over’ has theological and mythological baggage. Some euphemisms are comedic: ‘A visit from my Aunt Flo’ Sorry, I couldn’t resist. Anyhow, it’s a big topic…

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