What is Metonymy?

A metonymy is a literary device in which one representative term stands in for something else. For instance, “the Crown” is a metonymy for monarchy rule. A king wears a crown — which is where this metonymy originated — but “the Crown” does not just refer to the king. It refers to the whole system of government. Similarly, “the White House” is a metonymy for the Executive Branch of the United States government.

How Do You Identify Metonymy in Writing?

Metonymy is sometimes confused with two other literary devices, synecdoche and metaphor:

  • synedoche uses one representative part to describe the whole. For instances, “glasses” are just one part of a device that helps us to see better; the other part, the frame, is not mentioned. Calling your car “set of wheels” is another common synedoche.
  • metaphor makes a direct comparison between two things that are not typically thought of in the same way in order to illustrate a clear meaning. “My life is a trainwreck” is a metaphor.

In the example given above, the Crown is neither a direct comparison nor part of the whole. The best way to think of metonymy is to consider it a “logo” that represents an entire system, which has been distilled down to its essence.

Examples of Metonymy

Metonymy Example 1. The pen is mightier than the sword, from Edward Bulwer Lytton’s play, Richelieu, contains two examples of metonymy. “Pen” stands for thought and reason, while “sword” represents physical warfare.

Metonymy Example 2. “Hollywood” is not simply a place in Southern California; it is a metonymy for the film industry.

Metonymy Example 3. “The golden arches” is a metonymy for McDonalds.

Metonymy Example 4. “Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears,” from Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, is another metonymy. Although “ears” are part of a person, they are not being used to describe the whole here. Instead, “ears” represents attention and notice.

Metonymy Example 5. “The Silicon Valley” is a metonymy for the technology sector.

(View all literary devices)