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Identifying Metonymy

At first glance, offering a coherent definition of metonymy and marking it out as something qualitatively different from metaphor seems simple. However, when dealing with multiple real-world examples, it soon becomes apparent that there is often a fuzzy boundary between metaphor and metonymy. Biernacka’s (2013) adaptation of the MIP to metonymy focuses the analyst’s attention on distinguishing characteristics. The procedure has been reproduced below:

  • 1. Read the entire text to get a general understanding of the overall meaning.
  • 2. Determine the lexical units.
  • 3. Decide on the metonymicity of each lexical unit:

a. For each lexical unit establish its contextual meaning - taking into account how it applies to an entity in the situation evoked by the text, as well as co-text (i.e. the surrounding text; what is said before and after the examined expression). Take co-text into account.

b. For each lexical unit determine if it has a more basic contemporary meaning in other contexts than the meaning in the given context.

c. If the lexical unit has a more basic contemporary meaning in other contexts than the given context, and the contextual and basic meanings are different, determine if they are connected by contiguity, defined as a relation of adjacency and closeness comprising not only spatial contact but also temporal proximity, causal relations and part whole relations.

  • 4. If a connection is found in step 3c that is one of contiguity: check backwards and forwards to determine if any other lexical unit(s) belong(s) together semantically, thus determining the extent of the metonymy vehicle; and mark the lexical unit (or lexical units which belong together) as [aj metonymy vehicle.
  • (Biernacka, 2013, p. 117)

Steps 1, 2, and the first two parts of step 3 follow the wording of MIP, but steps 3c and 4 diverge in that their focus is on looking for relationships of“adja- cency and closeness” rather than similarity. The wording of this methodological procedure is careful and precise, but this is not to say that the identification of metonymy is a problem-free process.

To get a sense of some of the challenges, consider the following extract from a testimonial in a Christmas edition of the Evangelical Times:

I don’t want to bore you with my life story, but I do want to tell you about the love and saving grace of Jesus Christ. Not only does he save us from ourselves, but his blood, shed for us on Calvary’s cross, saves us from the penalty' of eternal death.

(Davis, 2018)

The expressions in the second sentence rely on several well-known metonyms for quite complex Christian ideas. The words “ourselves”, “blood”, “shed for us on Calvary’s cross”, and “death” deserve particular attention. The reference to “ourselves” does not refer to every aspect of us, such as our favorite color, height, or shoe size. Instead, it is a much more specific reference to humans in their unredeemed state, destined for hell unless God intervenes. It would be odd to view the term “ourselves” as similar to the idea that all people have sinned. This is because it involves a contiguous relationship where the whole is being used to refer to a specific part.

The reference to “blood” is not a simple assertion that Jesus saves sinners by physically bleeding, but that Jesus died for people’s sins. “Blood” therefore represents a crucial aspect of life, and the catastrophic loss of blood in this case represents one element that results in death. Again, arguing that blood is similar to life may be a bit strange, but it is perfectly normal to assert that life involves blood or that blood is an essential part of life. This allusion to blood then needs to be considered as part of the whole clause “shed for us on Calvary’s cross”. Here, the very exact reference to loss of blood on a cross located in Calvary refers to the whole sequence of events that make up Jesus’s crucifixion by the Romans and his eventual death and, as Christians believe, his resurrection. Finally, “death” refers specifically to a certain type of death, namely hell, rather than a broad notion of not being alive. In each of these four cases, a relationship of contiguity rather than comparison is being established, and all of them could therefore be identified as instances of metonymy.

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