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Metonym and Synecdoche

Both metonym and synecdoche are forms of language that create meaning by association. This association is seen in part-whole relationships, for example, “two heads are better than one”, where “heads” stands for “people” or “people’s ideas”, and in relationships where an associated entity stands for the actual referent, for example, “the White House made a statement today” where “the White House” stands for the US president or his/her spokespersons. The metonymical relationship covers a very broad range of actual instances, but its distinguishing feature from metaphor is that both entities (the metonym and the referent) are drawn from the same domain, or semantic field. In metaphor, on the other hand, one entity is described in terms of another from a different domain.

Some linguists, including Lakoff and Johnson (1980), have argued that metonymy is simply a type of metaphor. There are certainly areas where the two interact, and the work of Goossens (1990) theorises “metaphor from metonymy” and “metonymy within metaphor”, also coining the word “metaphtonomy”.

The distinction between metonym and synecdoche is not always agreed, but many linguists (e.g. the early Jakobson [Jakobson & Halle, 1956]) would see synecdoche as falling under the larger heading of metonymy. In my own work, I agree with Lock’s (1997: 323) droll assertion: “I shall follow the early Jakobson and treat synecdoche as a synecdoche of metonymy.” Synecdoche is generally considered to be a part-whole or whole- part relationship, while metonymy also includes other relationships of association. These examples are taken from Radden, Kopcke, Berg, and Siemund (2007) and Wales (1989):

PLACE FOR EVENT— “he was shocked by Vietnam”—metonymy.

OBJECT FOR USER—“the sax has flu today”—metonymy.

AUTHOR FOR WORK—“I love Proust”—metonymy.

PART FOR WHOLE—“strings [stringed instruments]”—synecdoche ^ metonymy.

WHOLE FOR PART—“England thankful to avoid serious injury”— synecdoche ^ metonymy.

The fact that metonymy (used henceforth as the umbrella term) draws both of its elements (the signifier and the signified) from the same domain, and that the two are already associated in experience, can suggest that metonymy is somehow less figurative and more realistic than metaphor. Jakobson (Jakobson, 2002; Jakobson & Halle, 1956) argued that the tropes are quite different: his metonymic “pole” associated met- onym with prose and writing in a realistic tradition, whereas metaphor was associated with romanticism and invention. Metonymic usages may be seen as less creative than metaphoric ones, but they share with metaphor the fact that they select certain aspects of the signified to foreground, and discard others. For example, both proverbs “Two heads are better than one” and “Many hands make light work” use parts of the body synecdochically to mean “people”, but select those parts that are most relevant to the meaning (connections with “intelligence” and “strength/ skill”, respectively). This selection can be meaningful, and can direct the audience’s attention to particular desired readings, while discarding or suppressing others, and these emphases can be ideologically significant. In his review of metonymy in a corpus of business texts, Cornelissen (2008) finds the metonym ORGANISATION FOR MEMBER (e.g. “BP announced ...”) to be widespread and significant, and discusses how it works together with the common business metaphor A COMPANY IS A HUMAN BEING, to direct the reader to envisage that the company is a person with single goals and purposes who can speak with a unified voice. This selective direction is of particular significance in journalism, where the principle of economy of expression is important (Bhatia, 1993; Biber, Johansson, Leech, Conrad, & Finegan, 1999).

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