On an evening newscast a news story about the US president includes a file photo of the White House in the frame over the news anchor’s left shoulder. The picture of the White House is meant to cue the audience to the fact that the story is about matters associated with the president’s office. The White House, a prop associated with the president, is used to signify the complex institution of the presidency. This mode of signification, in which a part or single characteristic of something is used to signify a more complex entity, or greater whole, is referred to as metonymy.
Metonyms are one of the many ways in which signs work at the second order of signification, that is, when the denotative sign, the sign at the first order of signification, is interpreted in relationship to the particular cultural contexts and experiences of the user. Metonyms work by activating in the mind of the reader or viewer a chain of stereotypical associations that he or she has acquired through socialization. So when we use the expression “the crown has decided to sell of some of its lands,” the audience comes to understand the crown as a reference to the monarchy. We use a part of something to signify the imagined whole.
We can better understand how metonyms operate by distinguishing them from the common use of another trope, metaphor. Much of our communication is made through analogies. When signifying meaning through metaphors, we create analogies – transposing the attributes of one object to describe a different and separate object. So when we describe a person’s insatiable sexual appetite by saying “he is an animal,” we transfer the sexual wildness of an animal to represent the man’s sexual behavior. While metaphors create their meaning by transposing attributes from different and unassociated spheres of reference, metonyms work on the same plane of reality, by associating objects that have a proximate or physical relationship. Metaphors cause us to understand one thing in terms of something different; metonyms cause us to refer to one thing (A) by using something (a) that is physically part of A or part of the world of A.
—–Metaphors and metonymy are different kinds of processes. Metaphor is principally a way of conceiving of one thing in terms of another, and its primary function is understanding. Metonymy, on the other hand, has primarily a referential function, that is, it allows us to use one entity to stand for another. But metonymy is not merely a referential device. It serves the function of providing understanding. (Lakoff and Johnson 1980, 36)
Drawing analogies through metaphors may be a common and useful way to create meaning in daily language, but metonyms may have an even more essential role in creating meaning because, as Fiske notes, “representation of reality inevitably involves metonym: we choose a part of the ‘reality’ to stand for the whole” (1990, 95). In taking a photograph, editing a news story, or constructing a narrative film, we select pieces of a continuous reality (candid or staged) and elliptically join them together in an ordered, condensed, and oftentimes dramatized form to represent that “reality”. Thus, virtually all representations of reality are metonymic. When we tell stories, we do not relay all the details of the events in the story. We facilitate efficient storytelling by selecting only portions of the event narrative to convey the larger story.
Invariably the metonymic selections we make in representation powerfully delimit and shape the way we come to understand the larger whole. In news, metonymic selections frame important public issues for the audience. For example, images of “precision bombing” dominated television news representations of the first Gulf War. Metonymically, precision air-bombing became emblematic of the entire execution of the war. Its impact was to create for viewers an impression of a bloodless war, de-emphasizing collateral damage and human costs.
Metonymic images of precision bombing function as indexical signs, because of their existential relationship with the war itself. The photographic images trace actual reflections of light from the war captured on film, video, or charge-coupled devices. In this way, metonymic representations exploit the “truth factor” associated with indices, and naturalize their meanings as truthful representation, even though we know the war as an event is much more complex than the narrow range of images we see (Griffin & Lee 1995). And metonymic representations function mythically, stimulating the viewer to construct a chain of associations related to the myth of modernization, technology, and progress. The images of precision bombing are seen as part of the world of progress through technological development, in which precision bombing reduces the human tragedy and collateral damage associated with even as tragic an event as warfare.
In advertising and in cartoons, metonyms are also used indexically, as a shorthand to activate mythical and stereotypical meanings socialized through acculturation. For example, in a Boucheron perfume ad, an image of the perfume “Trouble” is juxtaposed with a bust-shot of a woman with a snake wrapped around her neck. Through socialization, we recognize the woman with the snake as an indexical sign that references the myth of temptation in the Garden of Eden. The image therefore metonymically associates seductive taboo with the perfume “Trouble.”
Similarly, editorial cartoons utilize a single frame to activate stereotypical associations in the viewers. Caricatured drawings of President Clinton with a long nose, during the Monica Lewinsky scandal, not only exaggerated a pronounced feature of his face to physically identify him, but indexically referred to the story of Pinocchio, identifying Clinton with Pinocchio as a liar.
- Berger, A. A. (1999). Metonym. Signs in contemporary culture: An introduction to semiotics, 2nd edn. Salem, WI: Sheffield Publishing.
- Fiske, J. (1990). Signification. In Introduction to communication studies, 2nd edn. London and New York: Routledge, pp. 85 –100.
- Griffin, M., & Lee, J. S. (1995). Picturing the Gulf War: Constructing images of war in Time, Newsweek, and U.S. News and World Report. Journalism and Mass Communication Quarterly, 72(4), 813 – 825.
- Jakobson, R., & Halle, M. (1956). The fundamentals of language. The Hague: Mouton.
- Lakoff, G., & Johnson, M. (1980). Metaphors we live by. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.