Binders full of women with mighty pens: What is metonymy

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Metonymy in the wild

""Things were not going well for Mitt Romney in early autumn of last year. And then he responded to a query about gender equality with this sentence:

“I had the chance to pull together a cabinet, and all the applicants seemed to be men… I went to a number of women’s groups and said, ‘Can you help us find folks?’ and they brought us whole binders full of women.” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Binders_full_of_women

This became a very funny meme that stuck around for weeks. The reason for the longevity was the importance of women’s issues and the image of Romney himself. Not the phrase itself. What it showed or rather confirmed that journalists who in the same breath bemoan the quality of language education are completely ignorant about issues related to language. Saying things like:

In fairness, “binders” was most likely a slip of the tongue. http://edition.cnn.com/2012/10/17/opinion/cardona-binders-women/index.html

The answer to this is NO. This was not some ‘freudian slip of the tongue’ nor was it an inelegant phrase. It was simply a perfectly straightforward use of metonymy. Something we use and hear used probably a dozen times every day without remarking on it (or mostly so – see below).

What is metonymy

Metonymy is a figure of speech where something stands for something else because it has a connection to it. This connection can be physical, where a part of something can stand for a whole and a whole can stand for one of its parts.

  • Part for a whole: In I got myself some new wheels., ‘wheels’ stand in for ‘car’.
  • Whole for a part: In My bicycle got a puncture., ‘bicycle’ stands for a ‘tyre‘ which is a part of the it.

But the part/whole relationship does not have to be physical. Something can be a part of a process, idea, or configuration. The part/whole relationship can also be a membership or a cause and effect link. There are some subdomain instantiations where whole sets of conventional metonymies often congregate. Tools also often stand for jobs and linguistic units can stand for their uses. Materials can also be used to stand for things made from them. Some examples of these are:

  • Membership for members: “The Chess club sends best wishes.” < the ‘chess club’ stands for its members
  • Leader for lead: “The president invaded another country.” < the ‘president’ stands for the army
  • Tool  for person: “hired gun” < the tool stands for the person
  • Linguistic units for uses: “no more ifs and buts’ < if’ and ‘but’ stand for their types of questions
  • End of a process for process: ”the house is progressing nicely” < the ‘house’ is the final end of a process which stands for the process as a whole.
  • Tool/position for job“chair person” < ‘chair’ stands for the role of somebody who sits on it.
  • Body part for use: “lend a hand”, the ‘hand’ stands for the part of the process where hands are used.
  • City for inhabitants: “Detroit doesn’t like this” < the city of ‘Detroit’ stands for the people and industries associated with the city.
  • Material for object made from material: “he buried 6 inches of steel in his belly” < the steel stands for a sword as in “he filled him full of lead”, lead stands for bullets.

Metonymy chaining

Metonymies often occur in chains. A famous example by Michael Reddy is

“You’ll find better ideas than that in the library.”

where ideas are expressed in words, printed on pages, bound in books, stored in libraries.

In fact the ‘binders full of women’ is an example of a metonymic chain where women stand for profiles which are written on pages contained in binders.

It has been argued that these chains illustrate the very nature of metonymic inference. (See more below in section on reasoning.) In fact, it is not unreasonable to say that most metonymy contains some level of chaining or potential chaining. Not in cases of direct parts like ‘wheels’ standing for ‘cars’ but in the less concrete types like ‘hands’ standing for help or ‘president’ for the invading army, there is some level of chaining involved.

Metonymy vs. synechdoche

Metonymy is a term which is a part of a long standing classification of rhetorical tropes. The one term from this classification that metonymy is most closely associated with is synechdoche. In fact, what used to be called synechdoche is now simply subsumed under metonymy by most people who write about it.

The distinction is:
- Synechdoche describes a part standing for a whole (traditionally called pars pro toto) as in ‘The king built a cathedral.’ or the whole standing for a part (traditionally called totum pro parte) as in ‘Poland votes no’
- Metonymy describes a connection based on a non-part association such as containment, cause and effect, etc. (see above for a variety of examples)

While this distinction is not very hard to determine in most cases, it is not particularly useful and most people won’t be aware of it. In fact, I was taught that synechdoche was pars pro toto and metonymy was totum pro parte and all the other uses are an extension of these types. This makes just as much as sense as any other division but doesn’t seem to be the way the ancients looked at it.

Metaphor vs. metonymy

More commonly and perhaps more usefully, metonymy is contrasted with metaphor. In fact, ‘metaphor/metonymy’ is one of the key oppositions made in studies of figurative language.

People studying these tropes in the Lakoff and Johnson tradition will say something along the lines of metonymy relies on continguity wheras metaphor relies on similarity.

So for example:

  • you‘re such a kiss ass” is a metaphor because ‘kissing ass’ signifies a certain kind of behavior, but the body part is not involved, while
  • “I got this other car on my ass” is a metonymy because ‘ass’ stands for everything that’s behind you.


  • all men are pigs” is a metaphor because we ascribe the bad qualities of pigs to men but
  • this is our pig man” is a metonymy because ‘pig’ is part of the man’s work

Some people (like George Lakoff himself) maintain that the distinction between metaphor and metonymy represent a crucial divide. Lakoff puts metonymic connections along with metaphoric ones as the key figurative structuring principles of conceptual frames (along with propositions and image schemas). But I think that there is evidence to show that they play a similar role in figurative language and language in general. For example, we could add a third sentence to our ‘ass’ opposition such as ‘she kicked his ass’ which could be either metonymic when actual kicking occured but only some involved the buttocks or metaphoric if no kicking at all took place. But even then the metaphor relies on an underlying metonymy.

When we think of metaphor as a more special instance of domain mapping (or conceptual blending, as I do on this blog), then we see that very similar connections are being made in both. Very often both metaphor and metonymy are involved in the same figurative process. There is also often a component of social convention where some types of connections are more likely to be made.

For example, in “pen is mightier than the sword” the connections of ‘pen’ to writing and ‘sword’ to war or physical enforcement is often given as an example of metonymy. But the imagery is much richer than that. In order to understand this phrase, we need to compare two scenarios (one with the effects of writing and one with the effects of fighting) which is exactly what happens in the conceptualisation taking place in metaphors and analogies. These two processes are not just part of a chain but seem to happen all at once.

Another example is ‘enquiring minds want to know’ the labeling of which was the subject of a recent debate. We know that minds often metonymically stand for thinkers as in ‘we have a lot of sharp minds in this class’. But when we hear of ‘minds’ doing something, we think of metaphor. This is not all that implausible because ‘my mind has a mind of its own’ is out there: http://youtu.be/SdUZe2BddHo. But this figure of speech obviously relies on both conceptualisations at once (at least in the way some people will construe it).

Metonymy and