What Is Metonymy? Definition, Examples, and Uses of Metonymy in Writing

Written by MasterClass

Aug 15, 2019 • 3 min read

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If you’re looking for ways to improve your writing, incorporating figures of speech into your work can elevate your prose. Literary devices such as metonymy add symbolism or deeper meaning, drawing in readers and getting them invested in your story.



What Is Metonymy?

Metonymy comes from the Greek word “metōnymía,” which translates to “change of name.” Metonymy is a figure of speech in which an object or idea is referred to by the name of something closely associated with it, as opposed to by its own name. Metonymy involves a word or phrase substituting or standing in for another word or phrase.

Examples of Metonymy in Everyday Language and Literature

People use figurative language every day whether they realize it or not. Common examples of metonymy include in language include:

  • Referring to the President of the United States or their administration as “the White House” or “the Oval Office”
  • Referring to the American technology industry as “Silicon Valley”
  • Referring to the American advertising industry as “Madison Avenue”
  • Referring to the American film industry or celebrity culture as “Hollywood”
  • Referring to the New York Stock Exchange as “Wall Street”
  • Referring to a member of the British royal family as “the Crown”

Many famous quotes from literature contain metonymy examples, too. In William Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, Antony commands attention at Julius Caesar’s funeral by saying: “Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears.” Here, Antony is using the word “ears” to refer to people’s attention.

3 Reasons Why Writers Use Metonymy

Though many people might use metonymy subconsciously in their everyday speech, writers use it in fiction, essays, and poetry for a number of reasons.

  1. Metonymy allows writers to express themselves creatively. Substituting a different word or phrase, as long as the connection still makes sense, gives writers the freedom to get more creative with language.
  2. Metonymy gives writers the ability to make single words or phrases more powerful. You can add meaning and complexity to even the most ordinary word by having it stand in to mean something else. For example, take the phrase “the pen is mightier than the sword,” which contains two examples of metonymy. “Pen” and “sword” are everyday words, but when substituted for “written words” and “military force,” their meaning become much more symbolic. The phrase implies that the written word is more powerful than military force.
  3. Metonymy helps writers be more concise. Short phrases can sometimes be punchier and more profound. Journalists and speechwriters often use metonymy to replace complicated ideas with shorter, simpler alternatives to help audiences better understand complicated concepts.

What Is the Difference Between Metonymy and Metaphor?

Metonymy and metaphor are similar, but they’re not the same thing.

  • Metonymy associates the qualities of one word or phrase with another word or phrase.
  • Metaphor, however, substitutes a word or phrase with another word or phrase to draw a comparison to their similarities.

Learn more about metaphor in writing in our complete guide here.

What Is the Difference Between Metonymy and Synecdoche?

Synecdoche is a specific type of metonymy that occurs when a whole object or idea is referred to by the name of one of its smaller parts. For example, referring to a car as “my wheels” is synecdoche, because the wheels are just one part that represents the entire car.

Learn more about synecdoche in our complete guide here.

What Is the Difference Between Metonymy and Metalepsis?

Metalepsis is a specific type of metonymy that occurs when a word or phrase is used in a new context. For example, the idiom “lead foot” brings together two words that mean different things on their own—a heavy object and a foot—to create entirely new meaning—someone who drives with a heavy foot on the gas pedal.

Whether you’re creating a story as an artistic exercise or trying to get the attention of publishing houses, knowing how to correctly use figures of speech like metonymy in your work is a powerful asset. Award-winning author Judy Blume has spent decades honing her craft. In her writing MasterClass, Judy provides insight into how to invent vivid characters, write realistic dialogue, and turn your experiences into stories people will treasure.

Want to become a better writer? The MasterClass All-Access Pass provides exclusive video lessons on plot, character development, creating suspense, and more, all taught by literary masters, including Judy Blume, Neil Gaiman, Dan Brown, Margaret Atwood, David Baldacci, and more.