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Nice Work, a novel by David Lodge (Viking, 1988)


A word or phrase used in place of another with which it is closely associated. Adjective: metonymic.

See also:


Back-formation from metonymy: from the Greek, "change of name"

Examples and Observations:

  • "The part that is chosen to be a metonym of its whole is not arbitrary. Such a part must be in some sense outstanding, easily recognizable, and play a unique role in the whole. . . . A steering wheel would be a good metonym for driving, a violin a good metonym for a classical orchestra, bread a good metonym for a baker's shop, a file folder a good metonym for organizing documents in a computer.

    "Metonyms provide the basis for a human-centered theory of signs. Traffic signs, for examples, might employ pictograms of the road, a car, bicycle, or pedestrian, but they do not represent anything beyond the part-whole relationship."
    (Klaus Krippendorff, The Semantic Turn. CRC Press, 2006)

  • "[M]etonyms seem so natural that they are easily taken for granted, and we fail to realize that another metonym might give a very different picture of the same whole. A militantly protesting striker and a bored cold striker are both part of the same picket line, but they may be represented as significantly different metonyms."
    (Tim O'Sullivan, Key Concepts in Communication. Taylor & Francis, 1983)

  • "A metonym is the application of a mere attribute of an object to the whole object. For instance many Londoners call their city 'The Smoke.' Smoke used to be a characteristic part of the London scene, resulting in the smogs which were called (metaphorically) 'pea-soupers.' It came to signify the city as a whole, but this time the relationship between the signifier (Smoke) and its signified (London) is contiguous rather than asserted."
    (John Fiske and John Hartley, Reading Television. Routledge, 1978)

  • Non-Conventional Metonyms
    "Non-conventional or innovative metonyms are one of the most frequently discussed types of metonym in the general literature on semantics. The classical example is ham sandwich, used by a waiter to refer to a customer consuming a ham sandwich, in:
    'The ham sandwich is sitting at table 20' (Nunberg 1979:149)
    These metonyms can only be understood in the context in which they are uttered, because the use is not an established sense of term. In this example, 'customer' is not a generally recognised sense of ham sandwich, and so the expression is only interpretable as referring to a customer either through the co-text 'is sitting at table 20,' or through non-linguistic context, where, for example, the speaker indicates through a gesture that the referent is a person."
    (Alice Deignan, Metaphor and Corpus Linguistics. John Benjamins, 2005)

  • Metonyms and Metaphors
    "'One of the fundamental tools of semiotics is the distinction between metaphor and metonymy. D’you want me to explain it to you?'

    "'It’ll pass the time,' he said.

    "'Metaphor is a figure of speech based on similarity, whereas metonymy is based on contiguity. In metaphor you substitute something like the thing you mean for the thing itself, whereas in metonymy you substitute some attribute or cause or effect of the thing for the thing itself.'

    "'I don’t understand a word you’re saying.'

    "'Well, take one of your moulds. The bottom bit is called the drag because it’s dragged across the floor and the top bit is called the cope because it covers the bottom bit.'

    "'I told you that.'

    "'Yes, I know. What you didn’t tell me was that “drag” is a metonymy and “cope” is a metaphor.'

    "Vic grunted. 'What difference does it make?'

    "'It’s just a question of understanding how language works.' . . .

    "'The Marlboro ad . . . establishes a metonymic connection--completely spurious of course, but realistically plausible--between smoking that particular brand and the healthy, heroic, outdoor life of the cowboy. Buy the cigarette and you buy the life-style, or the fantasy of living it.'"
    (David Lodge, Nice Work. Viking, 1988)

  • Compound Metaphors and Compound Metonyms
    "Like metaphor, metonymy also comes in a compound-word form. While the compound metaphor makes a fanciful figurative comparison between two unlike realms ('snail mail'), a compound metonym, in distinction, characterizes a single domain by using an associated literal attribute as a characterizing adjective, for example, coffee-table book: a (usually expensive) large-format book that is too big to fit on a bookshelf, thus it's displayed on a table--effect for the cause. A compound metonym--usually two or three words--can be readily distinguished from a compound metaphor by a definition that always begins one that, one who, those which, and is followed by a significant quality or attribute. For instance, a Frisbee dog is one that has been trained to catch Frisbees (an attribute). One of the most memorable lyrical compound metonyms is Lennon and McCartney's 'kaleidoscope eyes' those which after taking a hallucinogen, see the world in refracted images ('Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds')."
    (Sheila Davis, The Songwriter's Idea Book. Writer's Digest Books, 1992)

  • Visual Metonyms
    "A visual metonym is a symbolic image that is used to make reference to something with a more literal meaning. For example, a cross might be used to signify the church. By way of association the viewer makes a connection between the image and the intended subject. Unlike a visual synecdoche, the two images bear a close relationship, but are not intrinsically linked. And unlike visual metaphors, metonyms do not transfer the characteristics of one image to another. [For example], the yellow taxi cab is typically associated with New York, although it is not physically part of the city."
    (Gavin Ambrose and Paul Harris, Image. AVA Publishing, 2005)
Pronunciation: MET-eh-nim
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