Why 'Turd Blossom' Is Metaphor but Not Metonym

The same is true of "blood-sucking leeches."


Let's have fun with metonymy! I got into this thicket with an early scene in my new profile of Jerry Brown. Here I was trying to convey the interesting/odd experience of talking with the man:

"Do you know what 'metonym' means?" [Brown] asked out of the blue one time. Unfortunately, I didn't. (To spare you my embarrassment: it's a name used as a reference for something else, like "K Street" for Washington's lobbying culture, or "Silicon Valley" for the tech industry.) The surprise, coming from a politician, was that he was actually asking for information rather than testing me or pretending he already knew. "Me neither," he said after my admission, "but I know it's very big with the deconstructionists." I did better when he asked whether I knew where the phrase "no country for old men" had come from. Yes! It's the first line of Yeats's "Sailing to Byzantium," which became the title of a novel by Cormac McCarthy, which was in turn the basis for a 2007 movie by the Coen brothers. Brown said that he was wondering because he'd just talked with a Washington media grandee* who used the phrase without knowing that it had any history. "Jerry didn't know there was a movie," his wife [Anne Gust Brown] said.
Now the readers weigh in. First, from Graham Culbertson of the department of English and Comparative Literature at UNC - Chapel Hill. He said he liked the piece, but:
I thought I'd take a moment to explain metonym a little more, in case you were interested. Your definition is right but might be a little misleading, while your examples are perfect.

It really only makes sense to talk about metonymy in reference to metaphor. You say a metonym is "a name used as a reference for something else."  That's true, but only part of the story. A metaphor is also a name used as a reference for something else. The difference is that a metonym has a real connection to the thing being referenced, whereas a metaphor has only an imagined connection.

If I call the lobbying industry "K Street," that's metonym, because K Street has a literal connection to lobbying. But if I call the lobbying industry "the blood-sucking leeches of American democracy," that's metaphor. They are symbolically connected to blood-sucking leeches, but there is no literal connection. A Karl Rove example: Calling Rove "Turd Blossom" is metaphor - he's not actually a flower. Calling him "the Brain" or "Bush's Brain" is metonymy - he is famous for his use of his brain. That last example is the most common type of metonym, synecdoche, when something is referred to by one of its parts. When you say "we need ten head of cattle," or "they need more arms in the bullpen," or "that movie got asses into seats," you are taking a full thing (a cow, a pitcher, an audience member) and using a part of it as its name (head, arm, ass). (Hopefully "ass" is ok to use if you quote this in your blog, as long as no children are forced to read it in-flight).

Finally, the reason why deconstructionists were obsessed with metonymy is that they were obsessed with how language tried to but failed to capture reality. Metonym, which seems to come closer to capturing the "real" thing that metaphor, was thus particularly interesting.
Noted! And now, from Dean Rowan of UC Berkeley Law School (Dean is his name, not his title):
Thumbnail image for Metonym-Release.jpgI suspect mine will not be the only comment you receive about the metonym passage in your Brown profile. There are at least a couple problems with your account.

First, your definition is essentially correct, yet meaninglessly so. A metonym does indeed involve substitution of one word or phrase for another, but its significance is in how the two terms are related. From OED's entry for "metonymy": " the action of substituting for a word or phrase denoting an object, action, institution, etc., a word or phrase denoting a property or something associated with it; an instance of this" (my emphasis). K Street is a metonym for DC lobbyists, because many of lobbying firms reside there and, consequently, the street is commonly associated with the practice. Similarly, Silicon Valley and the tech industry. Neither of these involves mere substitution of one phrase for another.

Second, Gov. Brown's reference to "deconstructionists" is misleading. Indeed, some scholars associated, for better or worse, with deconstruction as an approach to literary theory did enjoy parsing tropes in texts, and metonymy is a widely deployed trope. Paul de Man was perhaps the most famous example of such a scholar. But having more than a passing interest in rhetorical analysis does not make one a "deconstructionist," and, conversely, many "deconstructionists" don't especially care about it at all.
I wrote back saying thanks for the clarification -- and offering a clarification in my own defense. I hadn't said that metonym was a "substitute" for a real name. Rather, I'd said it was a "reference." In reply Rowan writes:
Well, yes, "reference" affords a degree of wiggle room. But my point is that "metonymy" specifies a particular referential relationship of association or adjacency not precisely indicated by other tropes, such as synecdoche, which specifies part-for-whole or vice-versa. We refer to judges as "the bench" (an adjacent object) and sometimes to the President as "the White House" (also related by adjacency), but (because I'm at a loss just now for an example, I choose one from Wikipedia) a "wood" as a particular golf club (referring by synecdoche to the wooden part of the club). Each is indeed a reference, but if you're going to ask, "What is a 'metonym'?," you're not looking merely for the aspect of reference. You want to know how that reference is effected. (A shoelace is a thing, but being told as much doesn't really help one define the object. Similarly, metonymy involves reference, but being told as much doesn't tell one how metonymy refers.) 

This is longstanding technical jargon, not by any means exclusively deployed by those literary theory folks from the '60s through the '80s or '90s who went a little nuts pitting metonymy against metaphor against synecdoche, and so on. (Don't even get me started on chiasmus.) Systematic rhetorical analysis harkens back at least to medieval thinkers,who were determined to classify these modes of reference, and far more ambitiously than "deconstructionists."
At least I know about chiasmus! I've even written about it right here.

* I am feeling particularly big-spirited in not naming the "Washington media grandee" in the No Country episode, whose identity I learned in off-the-record circumstances. Or maybe I am just feeling canny. (Top picture from here; other one from here.)