Is the Pen Mightier than the Sword? Learn About Famous Uses of Metonymy


Metonymy is a literary device that adds flair to writing. Essentially, it is a figure of speech similar to a metaphor or an analogy, but it only works in certain contexts. Metonymy is used in everyday speech, and often in journalism, but can also be used for artistic effect in literature, music, and film. To be a metonymy, the word that creates the analogy must also be closely related to its original meaning.

For example, if a press release states that “the White House declined to comment,” this means that the Presidential administration (rather than the physical structure of the White House) has not commented on the matter. “White House” is a metonymy for the President and the administration. Many famous uses of metonymy stand out above the rest, whether they were used in books, poetry, movies, or speeches. Do you recognize these famous uses of metonymy?

The Crown

When a knight swears loyalty to “the crown,” they are not swearing loyalty to the bejeweled hat on the Queen’s head, but to the monarchy itself. This metonymy is especially common when referring to the U.K.’s monarchy, as seen in the popular Netflix series about Queen Elizabeth II, The Crown. Similar to the crown, “the throne” is another metonymy for royalty, but typically refers to the kingdom itself, such as when an opponent “seizes the throne.” Game of Thrones doubles down on metonymy, with “game” referring to years of battles and intrigue among many players, and “thrones” refers to the many seats of power across the fantasy world of Westeros.

Lend me your ears

In Shakespeare’s, The Tragedy of Julius Caesar, Mark Antony asks, “Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears.” In this phrase, Antony is using “ears” as a metonymy to ask the audience to listen to him.

The pen is mightier than the sword

This line from English playwright Edward Bulwer-Lytton has two instances of metonymy. The “pen” represents “words” or “thought,” and the “sword” represents “violence.” In the play Cardinal Richelieu, the cardinal (and chief minister to King Louis XIII) discovers a plot to kill him, but as a priest he is unable to take up arms against his enemies. “The pen is mightier than the sword” was Richelieu’s belief that he could survive without weapons. The play was written in 1939, but this particular instance of metonymy was quickly adopted by the public, becoming a common idiom by the 1840s.

My Heart Will Go On

“Heart” is very frequentlyused as a metonymy when referring to love, devotion, or emotion, such as in Celine Dion’s signature song, “My Heart Will Go On,” from the 1997 blockbuster Titanic. The song’s lyrics refer to enduring, death-defying love, not an actual heart.

All hands on deck!

While it likely originated on the high seas, this recognizable phrase is used anytime there’s an urgent request for everyone to get to work. Thought to have originated with the Navy, the term is used to add emphasis and urgency to a scene, as it does during the film, In the Heart of the Sea, which was inspired by Herman Melville’s classic novel Moby Dick.

O, for a draught of vintage!

In John Keats’s “Ode to a Nightingale,” “vintage” symbolizes “wine” “Vintage” is a common word used to describe the year and place a wine was made, so it can serve as a synonym. Demonstrating how metonymy can be employed in poetry, the syllables in “vintage” fit the rhythm of the piece better than “wine.”

The Wolf of Wall Street

This blockbuster film title is chock-full of literary devices. The “wolf” is a metaphor for the aggressive investor and “Wall Street” a metonymy for the American Stock Market, not restricted to the physical street that runs through lower Manhattan. “Wall Street” is one of the most recognizable uses of metonymy today, making easy reference to not only the New York Stock Exchange but to the entire American financial market.

Featured image credit: mikeinlondon/ iStock