We’ve set out in this series to explore some of the literary devices in the Bible. Specifically, we’re looking at:

(1) common figures of speech;
(2) common semantic, rhetorical and poetic devices; and
(3) common structuring techniques.

The first category—common figures of speech—can be subdivided into:

(a) figures of speech involving comparison; and
(b) figures of speech involving substitution.

Thus far we have looked at nine figures of speech involving comparison (simile, metaphor, hypocatastasis, parable, allegory, personification, anthropomorphism, anthropopathism, and zoomorphism). We continue today with the first figure of speech involving substitutionmetonymy.


Pronunciation: \ mə-ˈtä-nə-mē \

Metonymy is a figure of speech in which a certain word or expression is substituted for the related thing it is intended to suggest. Metonymy is distinguished from metaphor in that metaphor draws resemblance between two different things (e.g., “You are sunlight,” where human beings and sunlight are two different things without any association, but a comparison is attempted based on a suggested similarity of some kind).

Metonymy, however, is a substitution based on the grounds of a close association (e.g., “The suits gathered in the office to discuss new market strategies,” where “suits” substitutes for the expression “business executives,” who typically wear suits while working in the office).

General Examples

•  “Rebels took to the streets to oppose the crown (= authority associated with the king or queen).”

•  “The brass (= military officers) at the Pentagon (= Defense Department) testified yesterday.”

•  “It was a bad day on Wall Street (= stock market, U.S. financial institutions) today.”

•  “The pen (= ideas expressed in writing) is mightier than the sword (= brute force).”

•  “Teenagers often drive with a lead foot (= too much speed) until they have their first accident.”

•  “He’s addicted to the track (= horseracing) and needs help now before he goes bankrupt.”

•  “For my devotions this month, I’ve been reading Matthew (= the book of Matthew).”

Biblical Examples

•  “And the whole earth was of one lip (= language) . . .” (Gen 11:1a)

•  “At the mouth (= testimony) of two or three witnesses . . . .”  (Deut 17:6a)

•  “. . . when he sees that their hand (= strength) is gone . . . .” (Deut 32:36)

•  “Pour out your anger (= judgment) upon the nations.” (Ps 79:6a)

•  “They have Moses (= the Torah) and the Prophets (= the prophetic books) . . . .”  (Luke 16:29a)

•  “The grave (= dead people) cannot praise you . . .” (Isa 38:18a)

•  “You prepare a table (= food and drink) before me . . .” (Ps 23:5a)

•  “The scepter (= rulership, tribal supremacy) shall not depart from Judah . . . .” (Gen 49:10a)

•  “May the name (= the person) of the God of Jacob protect you . . . .”  (Ps 20:2)

•  “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven (= God) is near.” (Matt 4:17b)

Additional Note

As noted above, when it comes to metaphor (and the related figure hypocatastasis), the thing to which a comparison is made is both semantically distant and imaginative. In metonymy, however, the word that triggers the association is semantically near and real (i.e., there really is a crown, brass, pen, foot, etc., though much more is meant by the substitution word).

If we say, “The White House said today . . . ,” that is a metonymy, “White House” being substituted for the president in the White House. But there is a White House. On the other hand, if we say, “Uncle Sam wants you!” that is a hypocatastasis. There is no Uncle Sam; he is a fictional character. (Uncle Sam is therefore also an anthropomorphism for the government.)

Additional Resources

The definition at for metonymy.

An audio pronunciation guide for the word metonymy.

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