What is Metonymy? Definition & Examples.


Definition: Metonymy is a figure of speech where a word or phrase is substituted with another word closely associated. For example, “the White House” refers to the U.S. President, and “Hollywood” can be used to discuss the U.S. film industry. It’s a way of replacing an actual name or word with a related concept, simplifying communication, and adding flavor to language by drawing on these associations.

In everyday language, people often use metonymy for efficiency and convenience. For example, saying “Wall Street” when discussing the American financial sector or “Pentagon” when referencing the US intelligence services uses metonymy because of the geographical and contextual association.

Here are a few more examples

  • “Broadway” – the theater industry in New York.
  • “Silicon Valley” – the high-tech industry.
  • “The White House” – the President of the United States or the administration in general.
  • “The Oval Office” – the President’s administration.
  • “The Crown” – the monarchy of a country.
  • “The Press” – journalists and news media.
  • “Madison Avenue” – the advertising industry in the U.S.
  • “The Tube” – the London Underground train system.

Metonymy is excellent for evoking emotions or depicting settings without lengthy descriptions. In other words, it’s a handy figure of speech for any scriptwriter who wants to capture the essence of a scene or invoke images in the audience’s mind through dialogue in as few words as possible. And who doesn’t?

The Difference between Metonymy and Metaphor

In his essay, Two Aspects of Language and Two Types of Aphasic Disturbances (1956), linguist Roman Jakobson outlines that language operates on two fundamental axes: metaphor (based on similarities) and metonymy (based on associations).

Metonymy involves substituting a word with another closely linked word regarding actual, physical association. This connection is not symbolic but direct and often part of the same conceptual whole. For example, in the movie The Crown (2016), the term “the crown” doesn’t just refer to the actual crown but stands for the entire institution of the British monarchy.

Metaphor, on the other hand, compares two unrelated things, suggesting a similarity that’s not applicable but offers a deeper understanding or symbolic meaning. A classic example is from The Matrix (1999), where Morpheus offers Neo a choice between a “red pill” and a “blue pill,” which metaphorically represents the choice between seeing a harsh reality and remaining in blissful ignorance.

Examples of Metonymy:

  • “Hollywood” – the American film industry.
  • “Fleet Street” – Historically used as a metonym for the British national press.
  • “The Tracks” – Often used to signify a poorer area in a community.
  • “The Kremlin” – the Russian government.
  • “Downing Street” – the executive branch of the Government of the UK.

Examples of Metaphor:

  • “The world is a stage” – Implies that life is like a play where everyone plays a part.
  • “He has a heart of stone” – Describes someone who is emotionally unresponsive.
  • “The classroom was a zoo” – Suggests that the classroom was chaotic.
  • “Her eyes were windows to the soul” – Implies that one can see her emotions and thoughts through her eyes.
  • “The heart of the city” – Refers to the central, most important part of the city.

The key difference lies in the type of connection the words make with their subjects. Metonymy uses a real and tangible link, while metaphor relies on abstract, imaginative connections.

In practical use, imagine watching Jaws (1975). When characters talk about “the shark,” they might be using metonymy to refer to the actual shark involved in the story. But if someone says “the shark” represents “fear of the unknown,” that’s a metaphor, suggesting a deeper meaning beyond the literal creature.

Read more about the various types of metaphors.

The Difference between Metonymy and Simile

A simile is a figure of speech that directly compares two things using connecting words such as “like” or “as.” Similes aim to make a description clearer or more vivid to the reader or listener. For example, saying, “Her smile is like sunshine,” provides a vivid mental image of how bright and warm her smile appears by comparing it to the sun.

The primary difference between metonymy and simile is how they convey associations and comparisons: Metonymy relies on conceptual association when the related entity can stand for the thing itself. In contrast, simile makes a direct comparison that tends to be more descriptive and illustrative rather than substitutive.

To further illustrate:

  • Metonymy: “The pen is mightier than the sword.” This famous line uses “pen” to represent the written word and “sword” to represent military power.
  • Simile: “He swims like a fish.” This simile directly compares the person’s swimming ability to the effortless swimming of a fish, suggesting proficiency.

Read more on Simile in Film.

The difference between Metonymy and Synecdoche

Synecdoche is a type of metonymy that uses a part of something to represent the whole or, occasionally, the whole to represent a part. This can make descriptions more vivid or forceful.

For example, calling a car “wheels” is a synecdoche because the part (wheels) stands for the whole (car). Another example is referring to workers as “hands,” which again uses a part (hands) to represent the whole person.

The main difference between metonymy and synecdoche lies in the connection between the figure of speech and the thing it represents: Metonymy relies on a broader associative or conceptual link, whereas synecdoche specifically uses a part-whole relationship. Understanding these differences can enhance the appreciation of literary techniques and improve linguistic expression.

Shakespeare often used synecdoche, as in “take thy face hence” (Macbeth), where “face” represents the whole person. Similarly, metonymy appears in common expressions like “the pen is mightier than the sword,” where “pen” stands for “written word” and “sword” for “military power.”

The difference between Metonymy and Metalepsis

Metalepsis is a complex figure of speech involving transgressive or illogical leaps over the domains of meaning. It often involves several layers of abstraction. This means that the figurative meaning of words far beyond their original contexts. This can sometimes create a narrative or poetic effect that is surprising or disorienting.

For example, saying “I am the East, and Juliet is the sun” from Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. The discussion transitions from characters to celestial bodies, connecting literal and metaphorical concepts.

The primary difference lies in the depth of the associative leap: Metonymy involves a direct, often singular, associative connection. Metalepsis, in contrast, makes a more profound jump in logic or narrative layers, often involving multiple steps or greater conceptual distance.

Another distinction is their usage: Metonymy is commonly used to streamline communication, making it more efficient by substituting lengthy explanations with a single, associated term. Metalepsis is typically more artistic or literary, used to add depth or provoke thought through unexpected connections.

You could say that where metonymy distills lengthy explanations into a few words, metalepsis does the opposite by unfolding a description of something into a lengthy poetic explanation.

Summing Up

Metonymy enriches language by allowing for concise and vivid expressions. In everyday speech, it streamlines communication and adds flavor using familiar associations.

However, understanding metonymy (and the related figures of speech) also benefits scriptwriters. It can improve your screenplay by embedding deeper meanings in just a few words when writing dialogue.

Up Next: What is Symbolism?


  • Jan Sørup

    Jan Sørup is a indie filmmaker, videographer and photographer from Denmark. He owns filmdaft.com and the Danish company Apertura, which produces video content for big companies in Denmark and Scandinavia. Jan has a background in music, has drawn webcomics, and is a former lecturer at the University of Copenhagen.

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