Let me preface this Word Nerd Wednesday by stressing that I'm such a nerd. Just the word metonymy makes me happy.
Say it. Savor it. Metonymy. Ahhhhh . . .
Okay. So you're thinking, Annette, shut up already. What does "metonymy" mean, already?
Here's the basic idea:
You use a piece of a whole thing, something the whole is associated with, and use that to refer to the whole.
Sounds confusing, but it really isn't.
(Side note: metonymy and synecdoche are so closely related that I'm not going to really distinguish between the two here. Most of the examples below are technically metonymy, but an argument could be make that a couple are synecdoche. They're sub-classes of the same concept, really. Sue me.)
One classic metaphorical example is from Shakespeare's Julius Caesar:
"Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears."
Does Mark Antony really want the crowd to hand over their ears? No, of course not. He's asking for their attention and does so using metonymy. Their ears represent their hearing and attention, so he focuses on those.
Here are more common examples you might be more familiar with: we often refer to "the press."
We all know what who and what that means, right? The journalists and the TV people and the newspaper folks. The press.
When we hear the term, no one ever imagines an actual printing press, although technically that's what we're talking about. We all know that what we really mean are all the people involved with the news that goes into making the news. In a sense, what goes into the printing press and the newspaper that comes out of it.
Similarly, "Hollywood" is technically a location. But we use that term to refer to the entire film and television industry, even though a lot of movies and TV shows aren't made there. Not to mention that many actors don't live or work there. (Heck, Oprah works out of Chicago and Sesame Street is in New York!) And so forth. But anytime someone refers to a "Hollywood marriage" or anything else "Hollywood," we immediately know they're referring to the acting business.
Other examples of metonymy:
"The crown." The monarch of England.
"The White House." It can't speak. We are regularly told that it does, but we aren't confused by the statement. When the "press" (hah!) tells us that the "White House said," we know what they mean.
Other common examples of metonymy include Detroit (the auto industry), Rome (the head of the Catholic church), and Salt Lake (head of the Mormon church).
Much like Hollywood refers to all things acting, Wall Street refers to all things financial industry, especially banking.
Then there are other examples that are less obvious, more symbolic, like having sweat refer to hard work: "He put a lot of sweat into that project." (Surely no one's picturing the guy dripping perspiration into a project. At least, let's hope not. Ick.)
I love coming across a new use of metonymy in a novel where the author has invented a metonym that just fits, one the reader understands immediately but one that isn't commonly used.
This is especially fun in fantasy works, where the author has to build a new world and figure out what kinds of metonymy would have naturally grown in their fictional world's culture.
I used metonymy once in a scene where I had a threatening group of soldiers chasing a young brother and sister. The point of the scene was the threat the army posed and the fact that the boy and girl were desperately trying to get away.
I described a horde of red and black armor spilling out of an inn and chasing after siblings almost like insects coming out of a hive. Using metonymy (just the armor and its colors) made the threat more real and scary. At least, I think so.
In a sense, it also dehumanized the enemy. Putting faces on the soldiers and referring to the men inside the suits of armor isn't what I wanted at that moment in the story. The men were supposed to be evil, faceless drones working for the villain. (Think: Stormtroopers.) I didn't want the reader imagining individuals inside each suit of armor. That might have evoked sympathy for them or at least humanized them on some level, and that's not where the focus needed to be.
Metonymy is a fun tool when used at the right time and well, and I think that's a scene where it worked.
Another word on synecdoche: It tends to be a bit more specific than metonymy. An example would be the term, "John Hancock" to refer to anyone's signature or plastic to refer to credit cards. Those are synecdoche, a bit too specific for metonomy, which tends to work in more general ways.
If there are other word nerds out there who thought up other uses of metonymy (or synecdoche), throw 'em into the comments!
They're loads of fun.