Examples of Metonymy: Understanding Its Meaning and Use

Metonymy is the use of a linked term to stand in for an object or concept. You’ll find examples of metonymy used frequently in both literature and everyday speech. You might use it yourself without even realizing it. Get a clear idea of the purpose of metonymy, how it differs from other literary devices and metonymy examples.

king, queen, and prince equal crown example of metonymy king, queen, and prince equal crown example of metonymy
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Purpose of Metonymy

As with other literary devices, one of the main purposes of metonymy is to add flavor to writing. A famous example of metonymy is, "The pen is mightier than the sword" from Edward Bulwer Lytton's play Cardinal Richelieu. This sentence has two metonyms:

  • "Pen" stands for "the written word."
  • "Sword" stands for "military aggression."

Metonyms are members of the figurative language family, so they serve as colorful ways to take the ordinary and dress it up into something poetic or beautiful.

Metonymy Examples: A Stand-in for Other Words

Understanding the context of metonymy is important. Every time you hear the word “pen,” it’s not necessarily a stand-in for “the written word.” Sometimes, a pen is just a pen. Look for context clues in the sentence to help you decide if the word is simply a word or if it's a representation. These examples include the metonymy, the possible object or concepts for which it could fill in and example sentences to further enhance your appreciation and understanding of the term.

MetonymyMeaningExample
crownin place of a royal personWe will swear loyalty to the crown.
The White House or The Oval Officeused in place of the President or White House staffThe White House will be making an announcement around noon.
suitsin place of businesspeopleIf we don’t get these reports in today, the suits will be after us.
heartto refer to love or emotionMy dear, you have all of my heart.
dishfor an entire plate of foodThat fancy fish dish you made was the best of the evening.
Washingtonto refer to the U.S. governmentAfter the protests, maybe Washington will listen to the voters.
the big houseto refer to prisonMy brother was just released from the big house.
Silicon Valleyto refer to the tech industrySilicon Valley is constantly pushing the boundaries in innovation.
Hollywoodto refer to the film industryIt seems like people will do whatever Hollywood says is cool.
earsfor giving attention, listeningTell me about your first date. I’m all ears!
silver foxfor an attractive older manYour older neighbor is quite the silver fox.
handfor helpCan you give me a hand carrying this box up the stairs?
tongueused in place of languageI couldn’t understand them, they spoke in their mother tongue.
brassused in place of high-ranking officialsLook lively, the top brass are coming for an audit today.
new bloodused in place of new people, fresh ideasThe team needs some new blood if it's going to win next season.

Metonymy Examples in Literature

Metonymy is used to provide meaning and connections to concepts. Writers often use it in this way, as well as to be more poetic or simply to make a long sentence more concise.

Gone With the Wind by Margaret Mitchell

In this metonymy, Scarlett O’Hara is referring to the government and citizens of Georgia. By using “Georgia” instead of “Georgia’s government, politicians and all the voting citizens” the author provides brevity and color.

“I'm mighty glad Georgia waited till after Christmas before it secedes or it would have ruined the Christmas parties.”

Julius Caesar by William Shakespeare

In William Shakespeare's play, “ears” represent the ability to listen. Shakespeare is not asking for everyone to chop off their ears, but rather he's asking them to pay attention.

“Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears;”

Ode to a Nightingale by John Keats

You may need a few context clues here, but “vintage” is used as a metonymy for “wine.”

“O, for a draught of vintage!”
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The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain

Author Mark Twain was a lover of figurative language. Many of his writings are wrapped in pretty illustrations. In this metonymy, “body” is a replacement for “person.”

"He said he reckoned a body could reform the old man with a shotgun, maybe, but he didn’t know no other way."

Metonymy vs. Synecdoche vs. Metaphor

Close relatives of metonymy are synecdoche and metaphor. In fact, some consider synecdoche to be a type of metonymy. Since you've explored the metonymy definition, it's time to look at synecdoche and metaphor and how the three are related. While metonymy replaces a concept or object entirely with a related term, synecdoche takes an element of the object and uses it to refer to the whole. Metaphor uses unlike things to draw an interesting comparison.

Synecdoche Defined

When people refer to their car as their “wheels,” that’s a synecdoche. Wheels are a part of the car. Another term for a car is your “ride.” In this case, “ride” is a metonymy because it’s a related word that replaces the term entirely.

Metaphor Definition

While metaphors replace the ordinary with the more fanciful, they don’t replace one word with another. Rather, they compare one thing to something else, in order to make a point. For example, “My life is a train wreck,” is a metaphor for, “My life is a horrible mess.”

Metonymy: A Colorful Element

Metonymy allows you to make a closely related substitute to add interest. As long as that substitute makes a logical connection, feel free to dress up your writing with these colorful elements. You may find yourself joining the ranks of Mark Twain or William Shakespeare someday!