SunWinks! March 8, 2015: Rhymes with “Economy”

[This column first appeared in slightly different form on Gather in 2012]

SunWinksLogoDear SunWinks! Symbiotes:

Metonymy!  (gesundheit…)

Pardon my Greek… The word “metonymy” itself may look as arcane and hairy as, say, onomatopoeia, but like onomatopoeia, you can find metonymy almost anywhere you look! Metonymy (meh-TAWN-i-mee) is the rhetorical figure in which an object is referred to by substituting something—usually smaller and more concrete—that is related to, symbolic of, or a constituent of that object.

An individual instance of metonymy is called a metonym. The type of metonym which consists of a constituent or component part of the object referred to is called a synecdoche (sin-ECK-duh-key). We use metonyms every day without even thinking about it. Here are a few familiar examples. You can think of dozens more.

Hollywood The movie industry
The Pentagon The Military
The Vatican The Catholic Church
Wall Street The financial industry
The long arm of the law The police
Accepting one’s cross Burden
I need a new set of wheels Car
Walk a mile in my shoes My journey
Use your head Brain, common sense
He was such a brain in grade school Genius

Metonymy is as vital an item in the poet’s toolkit as yellow ochre on an Impressionist’s palette. It will give your writing not only variety, but liveliness and vividness as well. Metonyms can focus broad abstractions into concrete, immediate images, as when Dylan Thomas says “all the sun long” instead of “all day,” or when I say “incur the lash” instead of “get punished.”

Here are just a few examples from the literature. Pick up your favorite volume of poetry, and you’ll find dozens more:

I should have been a pair of ragged claws
Scuttling across the floors of silent seas

T.S. Eliot

After great pain, a formal feeling comes—
The nerves sit ceremonious, like Tombs—
The stiff Heart questions was it He…

Emily Dickinson

All the sun long it was running, it was lovely, the hay
Fields high as the house

Dylan Thomas

And how, once startled into talk, the light syllables leaped for her,
And she balanced in the delight of her thought

Theodore Roethke

Her warm and rosy mouth
is telling lies—she would
believe them if she could believe:
her pretty eyes
search out corruption.

Denise Levertov

You do not do, you do not do
Any more, black shoe
In which I have lived like a foot
For thirty years, poor and white,
Barely daring to breath or Achoo.

Sylvia Plath

The Yachts

Contend in a sea which the land partly encloses
shielding them from the too heavy blows
of an ungoverned ocean which when it chooses
tortures the biggest hulls

William Carlos Williams

I was pleased to confirm while thinking about this article that I use metonymy almost every time I sit down to write. And so should you. Every time you write an abstract noun, you should ask yourself “can I find a metonym for this?” To wit:

Abstraction: The audience was bored.
Metonymy: I looked out on a sea of stifled yawns.
Metonymy: The fidgeting was almost audible.

Here are several examples from my own work. The first two metonyms have become commonplace in the language, like those in the table above. The others are more original. Either way is better than using a tired abstraction.

I must be good else I incur the lash.
Thus my authentic self becomes a sham.
I don’t know who I’ll be from day to day.


I fall on my knees and cry out:
Forgive me, Lord, I’ve been a
voice in the wilderness for so long,
I just got tired of it.


I read some drug addicts go into rehab
when their habits become too expensive.
After drying out for awhile,
they can get high again on less heroin.

If only I could find a hollow tree.


Red, blue, green, fuschia, lilac,
aquamarine–these are only names,
like depression, mania, schizophrenia.
We cannot describe them to the color-blind.
So I sit in the center ring,
smell the canvas and the sawdust and the dung,
take notes and try to blend in.


The Catholic philosophers have a term
for not feeling any consolation
when you pray or do good works.
They call it “spiritual aridity.”
All the great saints go through it.

I wonder how many cases of
undiagnosed clinical depression
are running around in heaven.

The Prompt:

Write a poem or sketch that employs at least one instance of metonymy.


Find several examples of metonyms in your favorite poems from the literature, share them with us and explain them.



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© 2015 Douglas J. Westberg. All Rights Reserved. Please share, reblog, link to, but do not copy or alter.



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