Metaphor creates the relation between its objects, while metonymy presupposes that relation. ~ Hugh Bredinn, Metonymy, Poetics Today, 1984
The English language is replete with various figures of speech that we tend to use so casually, but without understanding what kind of figure of speech we are actually using. Among the numerous figures of speech come metaphor and metonymy, and the confusion in their identification. Both are wonderful media of figurative language and can be used beautifully to enhance the effect of what we are trying to communicate. Before we understand these figures of speech, we ought to understand that the basic purpose of figurative language is to explain the literal in a symbolic manner so as to intensify its effect and to make the piece of writing or verbal language unique and creative. Having explained this basic function, let's move on to understanding what metonymy and metaphors are, and the difference between the two.
Metonymy is a figure of speech that uses a phrase that is indicative of, and associated to, an actual concept. The actual term is substituted by a word or a phrase that refers to the concept that is being spoken about. For instance, when you go to a bar and order a drink, instead of asking for a beer, you may directly ask for a Budweiser. Here, you are using the product name to refer to the product. As such, you are using a type of metonymy. In order to understand this better, here's a look into some more examples of metonymy.
- He writes a fine hand. This is indicative of the fact that someone has a good handwriting.
- Fox News has always maintained... Here Fox News is used is a collective term for its team members.
- As the bullet pierced his chest, I watched the life flow out of him. The term life has been used to refer to blood, as blood is integral to the human body and is therefore symbolic of life.
- She is the shoulder I always cry on. This commonly used phrase is a great example of metonymy. It refers to a whole as a part, as in fact, it is the person herself who is a great listener of others' woes.
- The blueberry pie wants to see the chef. This is what you will commonly hear in restaurants, as waiters and waitresses refer to their customers by their orders, providing yet another great example of metonymy.
A metaphor is used to liken an object, person, or situation to another that may be completely unlike the former, but has one similar quality. Though there may be no obvious relation say between an owl and a human being, a metaphor creates this relation by connecting the two with one similar quality, i.e. the ability to stay awake at night. As such, a person who can stay awake through the night is called an owl.
The difference between metaphor and metonymy then arises, when a metaphor draws a relation between two different objects/situations/persons for better understanding. For instance, if one says he is the office clown, it does not literally mean that this individual dresses up like a clown and comes to entertain everyone in the office. It simply means that this individual has a great sense of humor and is someone who livens up the office. In essence, it is the sense of humor that connects the office employee to a clown. Metonymy on the other hand draws a reference among two aspects of any one object/person/situation.
To understand better what the difference between metonymy and metaphor is, here are some examples of metaphors that will help.
- She is the true angel in my life. This example is indicative of the fact that the person being referred to is someone who has brought a big change into someone's life for the better, and is therefore being called an angel.
- My gym is a prison. This could probably refer to the fact that once in the gym, it is difficult to get out without exercising properly, which is ensured by the trainers there (who may be referred to as jailers or wardens).
- He is a snake in the grass. This is common metaphor that refers to someone who is not visibly bad or dangerous, but has eventually turned traitor. He is therefore a snake in the grass, not easily visible and that bites without warning.
- I do not follow the herd; I carve my own path. Yet another common metaphor used in everyday speech, the herd is symbolic of the common path most people take in life in terms of their career, relationship, or any other aspect.
Finally, we can sum up by saying that metonymy allows us to refer to one aspect of one domain, in relation to another aspect of the same domain. On the other hand, metaphor requires two domains to be able to establish a relationship. Yet, there are great similarities in the function of these two figures of speech. As you maintain focus and use them more often, the difference between the two will become more apparent and easier to identify.