The Function of Metonymy
In one of the few book-length examinations of metonymy, Littlemore (2015) devotes two chapters exclusively to its purpose and function. Among this wide- ranging discussion of how and why people use metonymy, three functions stand out as especially relevant to religious language: (1) referential, (2) highlighting and construal, and (3) relationship building and the establishment of discourse communities.
The referential function covers its use as a shortcut, allowing people to use one or two words to refer to something that would take a long explanation to specify fully. For example, the Vatican (originally, the name of a place) is now used to refer to the administrative leadership of the Catholic Church.
Highlighting and construal covers the use of metonymy to highlight a salient aspect of something or construe it in a particular way. A common example of this in Japan is the word hafu (a Japanese loanword derived from the English word half) to refer to someone who is mixed race. Referring to someone as hafu has a highlighting function because it focuses people’s attention on an aspect that is viewed as salient to the speaker. However, there have also been cases where individuals have used the term to emphasize the fact that a person is not completely Japanese, revealing a construal function with the potential to negatively evaluate others. This example demonstrates how metonymy can occur in the form of stereotypes, structuring categories so as to define what is “normal” (Lakoff, 1987b,
The social function of metonymy to mark group membership involves relationship building and the establishment of discourse communities. One example of this can be found in Deignan et al.’s (2013) analysis of the language used by parents and caregivers when watching their boys playing football. A common shout from the adults was,“that’s it, stay in front, son”. Deignan et al. (2013) found this was only occasionally used to refer to the speaker’s actual son (p. 1 l).The use of this term involves construal because it suggests a form of hierarchical relationship between the speaker and the player, but at the same time it also signals a close, encouraging relationship between the addresser and addressee.
Returning to the examples of religious language in the previous sections, most serve a referential function; for example, when kneeling represents the whole act of praying. The use of “blood” to stand for life and “blood, shed for us on Calvary’s cross” to represent a larger sequence of events also serve sophisticated referential functions. They act as shortcuts to complex networks of information. However, especially in the case of these two examples, there is an additional purpose of using immediately identifiable Christian shortcuts in testimonials. The use of this type of“Christian-speak” indexes the author as an authentic member of the Christian group. A particularly good example of this is the use of“shed” as a verb collocating with “blood”, which echoes the language of the King James Version of the Bible. Finally, the use of“ourselves” in “not only does he save us from ourselves” has both a referential function, pointing to the doctrine of original sin, and an evaluative function. The choice to include the reader, despite the fact that the author knows very little about them, reinforces the fact that the latter believes everybody is sinful and lost unless they are saved by Jesus’s death and resurrection.
One final common metonymic feature in religious language, akin to stereotypes, is reference to paragons, idealized individual members of a category “who represent either an ideal or its opposite” (Lakoff, 1987b, p. 88). For example, due to the well-known account of Judas as the disciple who betrayed Jesus, the name Judas is often used to refer to someone committing an act of betrayal. Paragons also appear as spiritual heroes providing models for believers who either directly witness the paragon’s actions or hear of them indirectly, often from textual sources (Bandura, 2003, p. 169). Some scholars (e.g., Oman &Thoresen, 2007) have gone so far as to identify this modeling (along with beliefs and practices) as a core feature characterizing religious traditions (p. 42).
Spiritual modeling is central to Confucianism (Olberding, 2012).The Analects, as a record of the activities of Confucius and his disciples, is especially important for its role in demonstrating an exemplary life. Lai (2014), in her discussion of this work, argues that the text “understands agency in light of how a person responds within specific contexts” (p. 92). Rather than examining crucial life decisions, the text focuses on “a person’s engagement with others in ordinary, daily activities” thus enabling people to “understand whether a person has been exemplary” (p. 92). The following passage (Analects 11:6) provides a good example: “Nan Rung thrice repeated the White Scepter. Confucius gave him his elder brother’s daughter to wife” (Brooks & Brooks, 2001, p. 70).
The story is strikingly brief with the entirety of the account contained in these two short sentences. As often happens in the Analects, the reader is given only a decontextualized glimpse of Confucius’s behavior or comments and is left to infer the significance based on familiarity with other passages, often with help from the extensive commentarial tradition. Here, the “White Scepter” refers to a poem in the Book of Poetry, which was already a classical Chinese compilation at the time of Confucius.The poem states that a scratch on a piece of white jade can be polished off, but an indiscreet word can never be retrieved. The 11:6 passage, instead of providing an abstract principle regarding the higher life, simply relates a specific action or a daily habit of one disciple as behavior that struck Confucius as noteworthy. Confucius is not telling all of his disciples to recite that particular poem, but the short passage, through exemplification, provides insight into the admirable features of the ideal man (Confucius) who places great value on people’s persistent emulation of the traditional high culture of the time in order to fully realize their human potential. Readers can also infer Confucius’s attitude toward social connections, how Confucius seeks to link himself (in this case, by arranging a marriage) with people who he feels embody virtue.