Understanding metonymy: examples of metonymy in modern language

This guide explains what metonymy is and how it’s used in modern language, both written and spoken. The word ‘metonymy’ comes from the Greek word, metonymia, meaning ‘change of name’. Using metonymy means changing the expression of an idea or object for something related to or commonly associated with it – for example, saying ‘the state’ to refer to the legal organisation of a country or area.


      This guide is part of the Semantix toolkit for copywriters, but it should also be useful for language students or those who wish to improve their overall language skills. It includes examples of metonymy in use as well as definitions. After reading this blog post, you’ll have a clear understanding of what metonymy is and how to use it in your own writing. We’ll also make some helpful distinctions between metonymy and closely associated figures such as synecdoche and metaphor.

      What is metonymy?

      In simple terms, metonymy is a figure of speech that changes the name of one thing to another related word. It’s a literary device commonly used to add interest and mood to text. It also enables writers to vary the way they express things or add a sense of the concrete to abstract concepts.

      Metonymy can also be used to add an element of the writer’s opinion, either positive or negative, about the concept or object. If a writer uses metonymy, it can be an attempt to influence the audience’s opinion. Therefore, the effect is subjective and based on everyone’s experience of the concept and ‘buy in’ to the writer’s ideas.

      Metonymy gives writers an opportunity to flex their creative muscles, which can be fun. It’s a form of literary symbolism that invites the reader/listener to visualise a concept as it relates to another form. It can also be used to deliver a deeper meaning or add emphasis. Metonymic phrases are often much simpler and shorter than a full explanation would be. An example would be the well-known phrase, ‘the pen is mightier than the sword’. This is far more concise and impactful than explaining how writing about a situation to influence opinion is a better strategy than fighting about it!

      The word used in place of the original word is called a metonym. In our first example, using ‘the state’ to refer to the legal organisation in a country or area, stateis the metonym.

      Types of metonymies

      As with many literary and rhetorical devices, definitions vary depending on which source you turn to. Moreover, the definitions are open to interpretation. If you’re considering different definitions, our advice is to focus on the ones that are useful to you and those that can help improve your writing or your understanding of texts.

      How is metonymy used?

      Metonymy can have a powerful effect on an audience, and it can also be fun to use. It can express a positive or negative opinion about an object or concept. If an audience resonates with the way a skilled writer uses metonymy, they might find the words memorable; their own opinions might even be influenced. This is a good reason why metonymy is used so often in politics and marketing – it has the power to change someone’s perception.

      On the other hand, if an audience feels that metonymy is used in an inappropriate or detrimental way, it’s possible for them to feel quite negatively about the writer or speaker. The sword of metonymy should be wielded only with skill and consideration.

      Some examples of metonymy are so commonplace, we don’t even notice when we use, hear or read them. For example, saying ‘What is your favourite Klimt?’. Substituting ‘painting by Gustav Klimt’ with simply ‘Klimt’ is a metonymy that we’d likely understand without much thought or consideration of the substitution.

      Metonymy can also be used to emphasise a characteristic or reinforce an aspect of something. It can give us an original, interesting and creative way to say something. For example, if we refer to someone who likes cars as a ‘petrol head’, we’re emphasising that they like vehicles and speed. ‘Petrol head’ summons up an idea of speed and mechanical performance. It has far more creative impact than just saying that someone ‘likes cars’.

      Let’s have a look at some examples of metonymy. We can guarantee you’ve come across at least some of them before:

      Metonymy examples in literature and poetry

      Metonymy in literature

      In this passage from Moby Dick by Herman Melville, the word 'hands’ is used to describe the crew of a ship:

      “You must know that in a settled and civilized ocean like our Atlantic, for example, some skippers think little of pumping their whole way across it; though of a still, sleepy night, should the officer of the deck happen to forget his duty in that respect, the probability would be that he and his shipmates would never again remember it, on account of all hands gently subsiding to the bottom.”

      Charles Dickens was a master of metonymy. This passage from Bleak House is used to describe the lawyers present in the chancery. Notice how he uses the terms for the clothes they wear in place of their official titles:

      There are two or three maces, or petty-bags, or privy purses, or whatever they may be in legal court suits.

      Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn is also full of with metaphor and metonymy. In this passage, Huck Finn uses the word bodyin place of a person or character:

      I went and told the Widow about it, and she said the thing a body could get by praying for it was ‘spiritual gifts’.

      Metonymy in poetry

      In Ode To A Nightingale by John Keats, the poet uses the word ‘vintage’ in place of wine or another desirable drink that has been aged:

      O, for a draught of vintage! that hath been
      Cool’d a long age in the deep-delved earth,
      Tasting of Flora and the country green,
      Dance, and Provençal song, and sunburnt mirth!

      Lord Byron’s famous poem, She Walks In Beauty, uses metonymy to paint an alluring picture of womanhood. In the example below, the term ‘raven tress’ is used in place of her hair. This gives the reader an impression of hair that is visually magnificent and, perhaps, dark and mysterious as a raven.

      One shade the more, one ray the less,
      Had half impaired the nameless grace
      Which waves in every raven tress,
      Or softly lightens o’er her face;
      Where thoughts serenely sweet express,
      How pure, how dear their dwelling-place.

      Metonymy examples in speech and performance


      Marlon Brando used ‘Hollywood’ to describe the world of film rather than the geographical area:

      Most of the successful people in Hollywood are failures as human beings.

      Lance Morcan uses ‘press’ to describe part of the news reporting industry:

      The media, like anything else, can be bought. Everything, it seems, has its price. Even the free press.

      Figures of speech

      Below are some common examples of metonymy being used in general language. These are British/English specific so it’s important to remember that they might not work if translated directly. If you’re creating material that will be translated to another language, it’s always a good idea to work with an experienced, native-speaking writer who can check that translated figures of speech still carry the same inferred meanings or suggest alternative ones.

      ‘The silver screen’ - the world of film.
      Plod’ - police (refers to them walking - plodding – ‘the beat’)
      ‘The law’ - also police
      ‘What's your favourite dish?’ - meaning, what’s your favourite meal
      The turf’ - world of horse racing
      ‘Hired gun’ - a freelance assassin
      ‘The press’ – for newspapers or media
      Wall Street’ – for the US financial sector

      Metonymy vs synecdoche

      Synecdoche is a type of metonymy. Like metonymy, it constitutes a name change, but the name needs to be either using a part of something to describe the whole or the other way around.

      For example, the expression ‘having a roof over one’s head’ contains two synecdoches. The ‘roof’ actually refers to more than just a roof – an entire house, an apartment, or in general, a place to stay. One's ‘head’, too, refers to the whole body or being.

      In both examples above, the whole (home and body) is substituted for the part (roof and head). This type of synecdoche is called pars pro toto, which is Latin for ‘the part for the whole’. The opposite also has a name: totem pro parte. An example the latter is for example saying: ‘The United States have decided...’ where the United States symbolise the government, or ‘The company has decided...’ meaning the management.

      In other words, synecdoche is a subcategory of metonymy. So how can you tell if something is a metonymy without being a synecdoche? For example, describing your car as your ‘wheels’ or your ‘motor’ would be using synecdoche, as these are both parts of the car. The word ‘ride’ can also be used to describe a car, but this time ‘ride’ isn’t part of the car so it’s metonymy, not synecdoche.

      Metonymy vs metaphor

      Metaphor is also a related figure of speech, and there is even an ongoing academic debate as to whether you can even wholly separate metonymies from metaphors, or whether they are so inherently linked that they should be seen as the same device.

      However, they are generally distinguished in the following way: metaphors are comparative and figurative, whereas metonymies are associative and logical.

      A metaphor compares aspects of two unrelated things. Referring to yourself as a ‘magpie’ if you collect shiny objects, a ‘night owl’ if you like late nights, or a ‘rising star’ if you’re doing well, are all examples of metaphor. Calling a child the ‘apple of my eye’ or describing an idea-generating meeting as ‘brain storming’ are also examples of metaphor.

      A metonymy, on the other hand, expresses a proximity to the thing it substitutes. For example, if you are at a friend’s house and they offer you some wine, and you say: ‘I’d love to have a glass’, you are using a metonymy, since the ‘glass’ is just the container of what you would love to have. You have substituted the content for the container, which is logically understood with regards to what was offered.

      How metonymy is used in marketing

      Metonymy can be used in advertising very creatively. As a rhetorical device, the skillful use of metonymy makes the advertisement more verbally vivid and therefore more memorable.

      Metonymy is often used in advertising in an ambitious or hyperbolic attempt to associate a product with the thing substituted in the metonym. An example of this is a recurring tagline from Yorkshire Tea (Taylors of Harrogate), which mentions ‘a proper brew'. Since the product they’re promoting is dried tea leaves grounded in paper bags, they’re not actually making ‘brews’. Since the word they use to promote their product is rather what can be accomplished by a customer with the help of their product, ‘brew’ is a form of metonymy.

      Another example is from an H&M campaign promoting their Conscious Denim collection, with the tagline: ‘Go green, wear blue’, where ‘green’ is a metonym for being environmentally friendly. This is a tricky example, though, since ‘green’ might originally have been a metaphor before becoming a widespread term associated with environmental issues. The term probably originated with ‘green politics’, becoming a kind of ideology wanting to encourage political decisions that prioritise the preservation of nature. It might also have been a metonymy, since the colour green is in many areas the most common colour in nature.

      Even the other colour in the campaign, ‘blue’, is a metonymy for denim or rather, for the products they’re selling that are made out of denim.

      Metonymy can also happen organically and provide a brand with plenty of ‘free marketing’ when an audience start referring to a whole range of products by a specific brand name. An example of this is ‘coke’ being used for fizzy cola drinks in general, or ‘hoover’ used as a name for all vacuum cleaners.

      Semantix copywriting and proofreading

      Semantix offers a full range of copywriting services, and you can work with a copywriter with specific knowledge in your industry. Our writers create effective marketing material in more than 200 languages. Using rhetorical devices like metonymy works in every language, but sometimes simply substituting one word for another (direct translation) doesn’t make sense. That’s why you need to work with a native-speaking copywriter to get the maximum impact from your marketing material.

      We also have expert proofreaders with specific industry experience who can make sure that mistakes don’t cost you time and money.

      Our style guide services

      There is no doubt that using rhetorical devices in marketing material can make your advertising stand out and create a memorable campaign that boosts your business. However, it’s important that they aren’t used clumsily, and it’s equally important that your target audience understands them.

      Building a style guide for your business can include specifying how and when figures of speech or rhetorical devices can be used. Your style guide is a working document that can be used across your business. It can also fast-track new writers up to speed when it comes to your unique brand voice and style of written marketing material.

      Want to know more about Semantix style guide services?

      Further reading