Metonymy and Synecdoche – How to teach it

When introducing these notoriously slippery, and difficult to explain, literary devices, it’s a good idea to revisit metaphor. Everybody understands metaphor. If we’re being honest, it’s not always the easiest term to define, but it doesn’t take long to rattle off a couple of examples of non-literal language and most pupils will pick it up and identify it reasonably well. I usually start off with the cliched ‘gutted’ as a starting point.  The vast majority of pupils soon recognise that this hackneyed adjective – so beloved of football managers and X Factor rejects – acts as a substitute for ‘very disappointed’ rather than signifying any actual disembowelment.

But the funny thing about metaphor (and some of the other examples of figurative language that I’ll come to later), as was proved in my Year 12 Lit class today, is the fact that even the most able pupils – and I’ve currently got some dazzlingly brilliant ones – often miss metaphorical language. I don’t mean the examples of metaphor that are signposted with ‘look at me: I’m a metaphor’, such as Stevenson’s account of how Jekyll was ‘doomed to such a dreadful shipwreck’. Rather, the everyday metaphors that have become so ingrained into our everyday communication, that we don’t even notice them.

This is how I revised metaphor today (we’d been discussing misogynistic discourse, hence the unpleasant first examples):

Metaphor – a comparison of two things by saying one thing, idea or action is the other. This is directly stated, rather than through comparison. For example:

  • She is a bitch (metaphor)
  • She is like a bitch on heat (simile)

Metaphors may appear as verbs (romance may blossom) or as adjectives (the yellow-bellied coward) or in longer idiomatic phrases, such as bite your nose off to spite your face.

Task 1:

Analyse Williams’ use of metaphor in the following extract from Act 1 Sc1 of A Streetcar Named Desire, commenting on the precise effect it has on the audience’s view of Blanche:

Well, Stella – you’re going to reproach me, I know that you’re bound to reproach me – but before you do – take into consideration – you left! I stayed and struggled! You came to New Orleans and looked out for yourself. I stayed at Belle Reve and tried to hold it together! I’m not meaning this in any reproachful way, but all the burden descended on my shoulders.

All pupils spotted the ‘hold it together’ and ‘the burden’ metaphors and did some quality anaylsis of effect. A few recognised the ‘looked out for yourself’ idiom and developed their view of the manipulative and melodramatic side of Blanche. None spotted the figurative use of ‘bound’ or ‘struggled’, which could have led to an even more nuanced line of argument. But no matter, we had bigger proverbial fish to fry.

Here’s my take on metonymy:

Metonymy –

  1. a figure of speech that replaces the name of one thing with the name of something else associated with it, derived from the Greek Metonymia, “a change of name”.
  • George Lakoff and Mark Johnson define a metonym as ‘using one entity to refer to another that is related to it.’ Most metonymies are so common we never notice them.  The substitution involved in a metonym is deliberate and designed to further tease out the word’s meaning, adding more detail and specificity to the text. For example:
  • ‘he’s hit the bottle again’ (alcoholic drink)
  • ‘The Oval Office are hard at work on a new economic plan’ (the people who work in the office i.e. the US government)
  • Hollywood continues to release lazy sequels this year’ (the American film industry)
  • The pen is mightier than the sword’ (the written word is more powerful than warfare)
  1. In the wider sense, modern literary theory defines metonym as a process in which a specific physical object is used as a vague suggestive symbol for a more general idea. For example:
  • George in Of Mice and Men acts as a metonym for the itinerant agricultural worker in 1930s America. His struggles are symbolic of the struggles of the huge groups of dispossessed male manual labourers during the Great Depression. This symbolism is reinforced by the etymology of George’s name, derived from the Greek georgos ‘farmer’. The metonymy is further amplified by George’s surname, Milton, – a favourite author of Steinbeck – whose Paradise Lost depicts Adam and Eve’s banishment from the Garden of Eden. Because of their fall, humanity – like the metonymical George- is destined to a nomadic life of loneliness and punishment.

I’ll be honest: it took me ages as an undergrad to get my head around metonymy. My (not very good) A level Lit teachers didn’t really get beyond personification and vague talk of “imagery”. So I was really chuffed that they all picked it up so quickly, particularly given that we were looking again at quotes that they’d previous written about as metaphors. I did of course explain that as metonymy and synecdoche are not literal they can always be correctly classified as metaphors. So why bother you might ask? I think that metonymy offers a more sophisticated understanding the associations between words and objects/ideas/actions. The blanket label metaphor helps us understand a replacement but doesn’t allow us to consider words in terms of contiguity. Here’s the task:

Task 2:

Analyse how Shakespeare fuses metonymy, epizeuxis and zoomorphism in the following extract from Act 1 Sc1 of Othello:


Even now, now, very now, an old black ram
Is tupping your white ewe. Arise, arise!
Awake the snorting citizens with the bell,
Or else the devil will make a grandsire of you.
Arise, I say!

The collectively identified the following metonyms, and produced some excellent writing on the impact of the language:

  • The ‘old black ram’
  • ‘your white ewe’
  • ‘the devil’

Now for the really tricky bit… explaining the difference between the first version of metonymy and synecdoche. The good news is that you can tell them that many theorists feel that the difference between the two figurative devices is so negligible that they feel we shouldn’t even bother categorising synecdoche separately. I see the point but disagree.

Before I explain why, let’s first look at my definition of synecdoche:

Synecdoche –  a figure of speech, which most literary critics see as a specific type of metonymy, in which a specific part of something is used to refer to the whole.  Such as:

  • ‘nice wheels’ (car)
  • ‘All hands on deck!’ (crew members)
  • ‘Can you go serve the suits on table 4’ (businessmen)
  • ‘Yes, I fought in Viet Nam’ (The Viet Nam War)

For me, the emphasis on a specific part of a whole that synecdoche relies on (yes I’m aware that there are other types of synecdoche but let’s not sprint before we can crawl, eh?) subtly differentiates itself from the close association of metonymy, even if it seems virtually identical. A clever lad politely asked me today to point out the difference between two of my examples: ‘the bottle’ for booze and ‘wheels’ for an automobile. While the bottle does indeed seem to be a specific part of (most) alcoholic drinks, I argued that its association as a container – the is frequently drained – makes it separate from the main object. If you said ‘I’m going to buy some fizz’ for prosecco then that would be synecdochic. But, to be clear, there’s not much between it in these examples and I don’t think many examiners would slam you for choosing either term. The task was:

Task 3:

Combine your analysis of Shakespeare’s use of language (AO2) in the following extract from Act 1 Sc1 of Othello with your knowledge of social and historical context (AO3) and critical theory (AO5):


But I will wear my heart upon my sleeve
For daws to peck at: I am not what I am.


What a full fortune does the thicklips owe
If he can carry’t thus!


Call up her father,
Rouse him: make after him, poison his delight,
Proclaim him in the streets; incense her kinsmen,
And, though he in a fertile climate dwell,
Plague him with flies: though that his joy be joy,
Yet throw such changes of vexation on’t,
As it may lose some colour.

‘The thicklips’ was widely spotted as a deeply derogatory synecdochic expression of racial stereotyping, befitting of the fervent anti-African sentiment of late Elizabethan culture. Most interesting though were our discussions on the so celebrated that it’s now idiomatic ‘wear my heart upon my sleeve’. I was dead set on nailing this as a metonym; my rationale being that his ‘heart’ as a figurative substitution for ‘honesty and open emotion’ would be best classified as ‘one entity referring to another that is related to it’. Yet one pupil eloquently argued that the ‘heart’ was being used as a synecdoche because his hyperbolic expression must be taken as an attempt to convince Roderigo of his ‘heart’ being so integral to his body and that his outburst of naked, exposed emotion opens up his whole being. I must admit I was swayed. Both now stand.

We’re going to move on to microcosm next time. The consensus after the lesson, and what I was hoping for, was that these highly technical and potentially very confusing literary devices had allowed the pupils to address the writer’s language on a much deeper level, in a way that the more restrictive metaphor sometimes can’t. Heads, including mine, were hurting but the effort had been worth it.

Thanks for reading,


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