Tag Archives: Metonymy


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 meronymy

One confusion, I’ve noticed is putting metonymy into opposition to meronymy. However, the term ‘meronymy has nothing to do with the universe of figurative language. It is simply a term for a name used to label a the meaning of a word in relationship to another word where one of these words denotes a whole and another its part. So ‘wheels’ are a meronym of ‘car’ and ‘bike’ but calling a nice car ‘sharp wheels’ is synechdoche, not meronymy as this post http://wuglife.tumblr.com/post/68572697017/metonymy-or-meronymy erroneously claims.

Meronyms together with hyponyms and hyperonyms are simply terms that describe semantic relationships between words. You could say that synechdoche relies on the meronymic (or holonymic) relationship between words or that it uses meronyms for reference.

It doesn’t make much difference for the overall understanding of the issues but perhaps worth clarifying.

William Croft also claims that meronymy is the only constituent relationship in his radical construction grammar (something which I have a lot of time for but not something hugely relevant to this discussion).

Metonymic imagery

Compared to metaphor, metonymy is often seen as the more pedestrian figure of speech. But as we saw in the reactions to Romney’s ‘binders of women’ that this is not necessarily the case:

he managed to conjure an image confirming every feminist’s worst fears about a Romney presidency; that he views women’s rights in the workplace as so much business admin, to be punched and filed and popped on a shelf http://www.theguardian.com/world/shortcuts/2012/oct/17/binders-full-of-women-romneys-four-words

The meme that sprang up around it consisted mostly of people illustrating this image, many of which can be found on http://bindersfullofwomen.tumblr.com (see one such image above).

This is not uncommon in the deconstructions and hypostatic debates about metonymies. ‘Pen is mightier than the sword’ is often objected to on the basis that somebody with a sword will always prevail over somebody with a pen. People will also often critique the ’cause of’ relationships, as in ‘the king did not erect this tower, all the hard-working builders did’. Another example could be all the gruesome jokes about ‘lending a hand’ or ‘asking for a hand in marriage’. I still remember a comedy routine from my youth which included the sentence, “The autopsy was successful, the doctor came over to me extending a hand…for me to take to the trash.”

But there is a big difference in how the imagery works in metonymy and metaphor. Most of the time we don’t notice it. But when we become aware of the rich evocative images that make a metaphor work, we think of the metaphor as working and those images illustrate the relationship between the two domains. But when we become aware of the images that are contained in a metonymy (as in the examples above), we are witnessing a failure of the metonymy. It stops doing its job as a trope and starts being perceived as somehow inappropriate usage. But metaphor thus revealed typically does its job even better (though not in all cases as I’ve often illustrated on this blog).

Reasoning with metonymy

Much has been written about metaphoric reasoning (sometimes in the guise of ‘analogic reasoning’) but connection is just as an important part of reasoning as similarity is.

Much of sympathetic magic requires both connection and similarity. So the ‘voodoo doll’ is shaped like a person but is connected to them by a their hair, skin, or an item belonging to them.

But reasoning by connection is all around us. For instance, in science, the relationship of containment is crucial to classification and much of logic. Also, the question of sets being part of sets which has spurred so much mathematical reasoning has both metaphoric and metonymic dimensions.

But we also reason by metonymy in daily life when we pay homage to the flag or call on the president to do something about the economy. Sometimes we understand something metonymically by compression, as if when we equate the success of a company with the success of its CEO. Sometimes we use metonymy to elaborate as when we say something like 12 hard working pistons brought the train home.

Metonymy is also involved in the process of exemplars and paragons. While the ultimate conceptualization is metaphoric, we also ask that the exemplar has some real connection. Journalists engage the process of metonymy when they pick someone to tell their story to exemplify a larger group. This person has to be both similar and connected to engage the power of the trope fully. On a more accessible level, insults and praise often have a metonymic component. When we call someone ‘an asshole’ or ‘a hero’, we often substitute a part of who they are for the whole, much to the detriment of our understanding of who they are (note that a metaphor is also involved).

Finally, many elements of representative democracy rely on metonymic reasoning. We want MPs to represent particular areas and think it is best if they originate in that area. We think because we paid taxes, the police ‘work for us’. Also, the ideology of nationalism and nation states are very much metonymic.

Warning in conclusion

I have often warned against the dangers of overdoing the associations generated by metaphors. But in many ways metonymy is potentially even more dangerous because of the magic of direct connection. It can be a very useful (and often necessary) shortcut to communication (particularly when used as compression) but just as often it can lead us down dangerous paths if we let it.


This post is an elaboration and reworking of my comment on Stan Carey’s post on metonymy:  It seemed to me a surprisingly confused and unclear about what metonymy does. This could be because Stan is no linguistic lightweight so I have expected more. But it’s easy to get this wrong, and rereading my comment there, it seems, I got a bit muddled myself. And, I’m sure even my more worked out description here could be successfully picked over. Even Wikipedia, which is normally quite good in this area, is a bit confused on the matter. The different entries for synechdoche and metonymy as well as related terms seem a bit patched together and don’t provide a straightforward definition.

Ultimately, the finer details don’t matter as long as we understand the semantic field. I hope this post contributes to that understanding but I’ll welcome any comments and corrections.

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Pervasiveness of Obliging Metaphors in Thought and Deed

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when history is at its most obliging, the history-writer needs be at his most wary.” (China by John Keay)

Die Mykologen - Glückspilze - Lucky Fellows - Fungi ExpertsI came across this nugget of wisdom when I was re-reading the Introduction to John Keay’s history of China. And it struck me that in some way this quote could be a part of the motto of this blog. The whole thing might then read something like this:

Hack at your thoughts at any opportunity to see if you can reveal new connections through analogies, metonymies and metaphors. Uncover hidden threads, weave new ones and follow them as far as they take you. But when you see them give way and oblige you with great new revelations about how the world really is, be wary!

Metaphors can be very obliging in their willingness to show us that things we previously thought separate are one and the same. But that is almost always the wrong conclusion. Everything is what it is, it is never like something else. (In this I have been subscribing to ‘tiny ontology’ even before I‘ve heard about it). But we can learn things about everything when we think about it as something else. Often we cannot even think of many things other than through something else. For instance, electricity. Electrons are useful to think of as particles or as waves. Electrons are electrons, they are not little balls nor are they waves. But when we start treating them as one or the other, they become more tractable for some problems (electrical current makes more sense when we think of them as waves and electricity generating heat makes sense when we think of them as little balls).

George Lakoff and Mark Johnson summarize metaphors in the X IS Y format (e.g. LOVE IS A JOURNEY) but this implied identity is where the danger lies. If love is a journey as we can see in a phrase like, ‘We’ve arrived at a junction in our relationship’, then it surely must be a journey in all respects: it has twists and turns, it takes time, it is expensive, it happens on asphalt! Hold on! Is that last one the reason ‘love can burn with an eternal flame’? Of course not. Love IS NOT a journey. Some aspects of what we call love make more sense to us when we think of them as a journey. But others don’t. Since it is obvious that love is not a journey but is like a journey, we don’t worry about it. But it’s more complicated than that. The identities implied in metaphor are so powerful (more so to some people than others) that some mappings are not allowed because of the dangers implied in following them too far. ‘LOVE IS A CONTRACT’ is a perfectly legitimate metaphor. There are many aspects of a romantic relationship that are contract-like. We agree to exclusivity, certain mode of interaction, considerations, etc. when we declare our love (or even when we just feel it – certain obligations seem to follow). But our moral compass just couldn’t stomach (intentional mix) the notion of paying for love or being in love out of obligation which could also be traced from this metaphor. We instinctively fear that ‘LOVE IS A CONTRACT’ is a far too obliging a metaphor and we don’t want to go there. (By we, I mean the general rules of acceptable discourse in certain circles, not every single cognizing individual.)

So even though metaphors do not describe identity, they imply it, and not infrequently, this identity is perceived as dangerous. But there’s nothing inherently dangerous about it. The issue is always the people and how willing they are to let themselves be obliged by the metaphor. They are aided and abetted in this by the conceptual universe the metaphor appears in but never completely constrained by it. Let’s take the common metaphor of WAR. I often mention the continuum of ‘war on poverty’, ‘war on drugs’, and ‘war on terror’ as an example of how the metaphors of ‘war’ do not have to lead to actual ‘war’. Lakoff showed that they can in ‘metaphors can kill’. But we see that they don’t have to. Or rather we don’t have to let them. If we don’t apply the brakes, metaphors can take us almost anywhere.

There are some metaphors that are so obliging, they have become cliches. And some are even recognized as such by the community. Take, for instance, the Godwin law. X is Hitler or X is Nazi are such seductive metaphors that sooner or later someone will apply them in almost any even remotely relevant situation. And even with the awareness of Godwin’s law, people continue to do it.

The key principle of this blog is that anything can be a metaphor for anything with useful consequences. Including:

  • United States is ancient Rome
  • China today is Soviet Union of the 1950s
  • Saddam Hussein is Hitler
  • Iraq is Vietnam
  • Education is a business
  • Mental difficulties are diseases
  • Learning is filling the mind with facts
  • The mind is the software running on the hardware of the brain
  • Marriage is a union between two people who love each other
  • X is evolved to do Y
  • X is a market place

But this only applies with the HUGE caveat that we must never misread the ‘is’ for a statement of perfect identity or even isomorphims (same shapedness). It’s ‘is(m)’. None of the above metaphors are perfect identities – they can be beneficially followed as far as they take us, but each one of them is needs to be bounded before we start drawing conclusions.

Now, things are not helped by the fact that any predication or attribution can appear as a kind of metaphor. Or rather it can reveal the same conceptual structures the same way metaphors do.

‘John is a teacher.’ may seem like a simple statement of fact but it’s so much more. It projects the identity of John (of whom we have some sort of a mental image) into the image schema of a teacher. That there’s more to this than just a simple statement can be revealed by ‘I can’t believe that John is a teacher.’ The underlying mental representations and work on them is not that different to ‘John is a teaching machine.’ Even simple naming is subject to this as we can see in ‘You don’t look much like a Janice.’

Equally, simple descriptions like ‘The sky is blue’ are more complex. The sky is blue in a different ways than somebody’s eyes are blue or the sea is blue. I had that experience myself when I first saw the ‘White Cliffs of Dover’ and was shocked that they were actually white. I just assumed that they were a lighter kind of cliff than a typical cliff or having some white smudges. They were white in the way chalk is white (through and through) and not in the way a zebra crossing is white (as opposed to a double yellow line).

A famous example of how complex these conceptualisations can get is ‘In France, Watergate would not have harmed Nixon.’ The ‘in France’ and ‘not’ bits establishe a mental space in which we can see certain parts of what we know about Nixon and Watergate projected onto what we know about France. Which is why sentences like “The King of France is bald.” and “Unicorns are white.” make perfect sense even though they both describe things that don’t exist.

Now, that’s not to say that sentences like ‘The sky is blue’, ‘I’m feeling blue’,'I’ll praise you to the sky.’, or ‘He jumped sky high.’ and ‘He jumped six inches high.’ are cognitively or linguistically exactly the same. There’s lots of research that shows that they have different processing requirements and are treated differently. But there seems to be a continuum in the ability of different people (much research is needed here) to accept the partiality of any statement of identity or attribution. On the one extreme, there appears something like autism which leads to a reduced ability to identify figurative partiality in any predication but actually, most of the time, we all let ourselves be swayed by the allure of implied identity. Students are shocked when they see their teacher kissing their spouse or shopping in the mall. We even ritualize this sort of thing when we expect unreasonable morality from politicians or other public figures. This is because over the long run overtly figurative sentence such as ‘he’s has eyes like a hawk’ and ‘the hawk has eyes’ need similar mental structures to be present to make sense to us. And I suspect that this is part of the reason why we let ourselves be so easily obliged by metaphors.

Update: This post was intended as a warning against over-obliging metaphors that lead to perverse understandings of things as other things in unwarranted totalities. In this sense, they are the ignes fatui of Hobbes. But there’s another way in which over-obliging metaphors can be misleading. And that is, they draw on their other connections to make it seem we’ve come to a new understanding where in fact all we’ve done is rename elements of one domain with the names of elements of another domain without any elucidation. This was famously and devastatingly the downfall of Skinner’s Verbal Behavior under Chomsky’s critique. He simply (at least in the extreme caricature that was Chomsky’s review) took things about language and described them in terms of operant conditioning. No new understanding was added but because the ‘new’ science of psychology was in as the future of our understanding of everything, just using those terms made us assume there was a deeper knowledge. Chomsky was ultimately right-if only to fall prey to the same danger with his computational metaphors of language. Another area where that is happening is evolution, genetics and neuroscience which are often used (sometimes all at once) to simply relabel something without adding any new understanding whatsoever.

Update 2: Here’s another example of overobliging metaphor in the seeking of analogies to the worries about climate change: http://andrewgelman.com/2013/11/25/interesting-flawed-attempt-apply-general-forecasting-principles-contextualize-attitudes-toward-risks-global-warming/#comment-151713.  My comment was:

…analogies work best when they are opportunistic, ad hoc, and abandoned as quickly as they are adopted. Analogies, if used generatively (i.e. to come up with new ideas), can be incredibly powerful. But when used exegeticaly (i.e. to interpret or summarize other people’s ideas), they can be very harmful.

The big problem is that in our cognition, ‘x is y’ and ‘x is like y’ are often treated very similarly. But the fact is that x is never y. So every analogy has to be judged on its own merit and we need to carefully examine why we’re using the analogy and at every step consider its limits. The power of analogy is in its ability to direct our thinking (and general cognition) i.e. not in its ‘accuracy’ but in its ‘aptness’.

I have long argued that history should be included in considering research results and interpretations. For example, every ‘scientific’ proof of some fundamental deficiencies of women with respect to their role in society has turned out to be either inaccurate or non-scalable. So every new ‘proof’ of a ‘woman’s place’ needs to be treated with great skepticism. But that does not mean that one such proof does not exist. But it does mean that we shouldn’t base any policies on it until we are very very certain.

Image Creative Commons License Hartwig HKD via Compfight

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What it’s all About

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Rendering of human brain.
Image via Wikipedia
Metaphors are not just something extra we use when we’re feeling poetic or at a loss for le mot juste, they are all over our minds, texts and conversations. Just like conjunctions, tenses or word. And just like anything else, they can be used for good or ill, on purpose or without conscious regard. Their meanings can be exposed, explored and exorcised. They can be brought from the dead by fresh perspectives or trodden into the ground by frequent use. They may bring us into the very heights of ecstasy or they may pass by unnoticed. They elluminate and obscure, lead and mislead, bring life and death. They can be too constrained or they can taken too far. They can be wrong and they can be right. And they can be hacked.

Hacking metaphors means taking them apart seeing how they work and putting them back together in a creative and useful way. People hack metaphors all the time without realizing what they’re doing and often getting into trouble by not recognizing that this is what they’re doing.  Paying a bit more attention to how metaphors work and how they can made work differently can make their hacking an easier process.

Oh, and …

Metaphor doesn’t really exist as a separate clearly delineated concept. It is really only one expression of a more general cognitive faculty I call conceptual framing. Depending on who you ask, it is different from or the same as simileanalogyallegory and closely related or in opposition to metonymysynechdoche, irony, and a host of other tropes. On this site, these distinctions don’t matter. All of the above rely on the same conceptual structures and metaphor is just as good a label as any for them.

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