Gregory Nagy, Masterpieces of Metonymy: From Ancient Greek Times to Now
List of Extracts
I: Making metonyms both naturally and artistically
II: Interweaving metonymy and metaphor
III: Masterpieces of metonymy on the Acropolis
IV: The metonymy of a perfect festive moment
Epilogue without end: A metonymic reading of a love story
0§01. Although my primary interest here is in metonymy and in the creations of metonymy—which I call metonyms—I cannot think of this word metonymy without correlating it with another word, metaphor. So, I begin with a working definition of the two words taken together:
- Metonymy is a mental process that expresses meaning by connecting something to something else that is next to it or at least near to it, thereby making contact.
- Metaphor is a mental process that expresses meaning by substituting something for something else. 
0§02. On the occasion of the Charles Beebe Martin Classical Lectures that I presented in the spring of 2003 (March 3, 4, 6, 7) at Oberlin College, I had already argued for the distinction I make here between metonymy as connection and metaphor as substitution. Now, over ten years later, I hope to consolidate and refine that argumentation in the format of a book that re-enacts in four parts the four lectures I had presented back then at Oberlin.
0§03. From the start, I confront an obstacle that may interfere with the flow of my project. The word substitution in my working definition of metaphor may be misunderstood. Let me clarify: when I say substitution here, I am referring not to the simple replacement of one word by another. Even the use of metonymy, as we will see, can involve replacements in wording. Rather, as we will also see, the process of substitution in the use of metaphor is something that transcends words: substitution in metaphor is a mental process where one way of thinking is replaced by another way that is alien to the previous way.
0§04. In developing my arguments in this book, I will make use of relevant terminology developed by my teacher Roman Jakobson, a leading figure of the so-called Prague School of linguistics, who describes metonymy and metaphor respectively in terms of contiguity and similarity, or combination and selection,  moving along an axis of combination in the case of metonymy and along an axis of selection in the case of metaphor.  The axis of combination in meaning can be seen as a horizontal movement connecting elements A and B and C … to each other in a sequence that proceeds all the way to … X and Y and Z; correspondingly, the axis of selection in meaning can be seen as a vertical movement that varies the elements in the same sequence by allowing substitutions of one variant for another, so that the element A can become A0 or A1 or A2 or A3 …, or the element B can become B0 or B1 or B2 or B3 .., and so on.
0§05. In the horizontal axis, for example, if A is "hand," then B can be "arm" and C can be "shoulder," and so on. As for the vertical axis, in an example starting again with "hand," we can say that A1 and A2 and A3 and so on can stand for, respectively, "hand" and "claw" and "hoof" and so on.
0§06. In Part Two of this book, I will give my own reasons for visualizing the interaction of metonymy and metaphor as a coordination of horizontal and vertical axes respectively. Here in the Introduction, however, as also in Part One, which follows, I will avoid using these terms horizontal and vertical while I argue, more generally, that metonymy and metaphor interact with each other as coordinated mental processes.
Opening remarks on the coordination of metonymy and metaphor
0§1. Although I view metonymy and metaphor as coordinated mental processes, I find no explicit statement in ancient Greek sources about such a coordination. But I see at least the implication of a pattern of coordination between metonymy and metaphor when I read the working definition of metaphor in the Poetics of Aristotle, who lived in the fourth century BCE:
Metaphor [metaphorā] is the application of a noun [onoma] that is alien [allotrion], by transference either from the general [tò genos] to the specific [tò eidos], or from the specific [tò eidos] to the general [tò genos], or from the specific [tò eidos] to the specific [tò eidos], or [it is a transference] by way of analogy [tò analogon].
Aristotle Poetics 1457b5–9 
0§2. For me the key word here is allotrion, which I have translated as ‘alien’, that is, ‘belonging not to the self but to someone else or to something else’. In ancient Greek, the opposite of allotrion is oikeion, which means ‘familiar’, that is, ‘belonging to the self or to someone or something that belongs to the self’, as we see in further remarks made by Aristotle about metaphor (Poetics 1457b31–32 and elsewhere). Although Aristotle nowhere uses the term metōnumiā, which we translate as ‘metonymy’, it is attested in later Greek sources. And, in one of these sources, this term metōnumiā ‘metonymy’ is defined as a reference to the oikeion, that is, to whatever is ‘familiar’. Here is the wording of that definition, preserved in an ancient commentary on the works of Dionysius of Thrace, a pioneer in the science of linguistics who lived the second century BCE:
Metonymy [metōnumiā] is a part of speech that properly applies to one thing but indicates [sēmainei] another thing by way of what is familiar [oikeion] to it. Here is an example: ὑπείρεχον Ἡφαίστοιο [at Iliad II 426] ‘they were holding [the meat to be roasted] over Hēphaistos’ instead of ‘[they were holding the meat to be roasted] over the fire’. That is because fire is familiar [oikeion] to [the god of fire] Hēphaistos.
Scholia for Dionysius of Thrace Ars Grammatica 461.5 Hilgard 
0§3. Building on this formulation, I now offer a second working definition of metonymy: it is a mental process of connecting things that are familiar to the self.
0§4. Throughout this book, I will be reading examples of metonymy in a wide variety of forms. Some of these examples will come from literature—or let me call it not literature but the verbal art of song, poetry, prose. Other examples will come from visual art. Still other examples will come simply from the use of language—and here I mean visual as well as verbal language. So, I cannot say that all of my examples qualify as art. And that is as it should be: already in Part One of this book, which follows shortly, I will show that the mental process of metonymy—and the same goes for metaphor—is simply a fact of human life.
0§5. Yes, some of my examples of metonymy will come from masterpieces of verbal or visual art and, in some cases, the examples themselves can be appreciated as artistic masterpieces in their own right. That is one reason why I have given this book the title Masterpieces of Metonymy. But I also had another reason for this title, and here it is: any metonym, as a creation of the mental process of metonymy, may qualify as a piece of creativity, even if the metonym itself is no masterpiece. To take it one step further, a metonym can be a masterpiece even if the larger artistic creation that contains it fails to qualify as a masterpiece. And I can take it another step further: we can find masterpieces of metonymy even in contexts that have nothing to do with art in the first place.
0§6. That is why, wherever we encounter in this book an example of metonymy, I will try to concentrate on the potential creativity of that metonymy simply as a process, without worrying about the artistic status of that process. Although some of the metonyms we are about to encounter are in fact artistic masterpieces, I cannot really say such a thing about all of them. And it should not even matter if some of the metonyms we read may end up falling flat as artistic creations. What matters to me is not what we read but how we read it.
0§7. So, how are we to read? A model is the philologist’s art of reading, described by Nietzsche, who links the artistry of a goldsmith’s delicate fingers with the attentiveness of the careful reader’s eye:
Philology is that venerable art which demands of its votaries one thing above all: to go aside, to take time, to become still, to become slow—it is a goldsmith’s art and connoisseurship of the word which has nothing but delicate cautious work to do and achieves nothing if it does not achieve it lento. But for precisely this reason it is more necessary than ever today; by precisely this means does it entice and enchant us the most, in the midst of an age of “work,” that is to say, of hurry, of indecent and perspiring haste, which wants to “get everything done” at once, including every old or new book:—this art does not easily get anything done, it teaches to read well, that is to say, to read slowly, deeply, looking cautiously forward and backward, with reservations, with doors left open, with delicate fingers and eyes.
Friedrich Nietzsche, Daybreak (Morgenröt[h]e) 1885 
A metonymic reading of a scene from a film by Miloš Forman
0§8. Keeping in mind my secondary working definition of metonymy as a mental process of connecting things that are familiar to the self, I choose as a first example a scene from the film Hair (1979), based on a musical by the same name (off-Broadway 1967; Broadway 1968). The film version, directed by Miloš Forman, captures most tellingly a performance of metonymy. The performer is singing and dancing the role of an ostentatiously egotistical Self whose exuberant head of hair connects to every imaginable part of his self-expression. This Self is a young man named George (acted by Treat Williams), who becomes an unwelcome intruder at an exclusive dinner party. Confronting George is an outraged hostess who scolds him for his boldness by intoning: "You’ve got a hell of a nerve, young man." Undeterred, George gets the nerve to test the limits further. He impulsively leaps on top of the dinner table, and right there he starts to sing and dance what he is all about, while addressing in the most familiar terms his alien hostess as ‘mother’:
I got life, mother. | I got laughs, sister. | I got freedom, brother. | I got good times, man. | I got crazy ways, daughter. | I got million-dollar charm, cousin. | I got headaches, and toothaches … | And bad times too … | Like you.
| I got my hair I got my head I got my brains I got my ears I got my eyes I got my nose I got my mouth, | I got my teeth. | I got my tongue I got my chin I got my neck I got my tits I got my heart I got my soul I got my back, | I got my ass. | I got my arms I got my hands I got my fingers—got my legs I got my feet I got my toes I got my liver. | Got my blood …
[By now George’s song is accompanied by the outraged cries of the dinner guests as he continues prancing on top of the dinner table. But George does continue, recycling the connections of his song until it reaches its conclusion …]
… got my guts, | got my muscles … | I got life, life, life, life, life, life, life.
From the script of Hair (1978, directed by Miloš Forman; choreography by Twyla Tharp) ‘I got life’ (words by Gerome Ragni and James Rado, song by Galt MacDermot)
Here is the corresponding performance:
0§9. From a metonymic view of this performance as I have just transcribed it, we can see a lengthy sequence of monosyllabic words arranged in the pattern I got my this I got my that. What is most remarkable about this sequence is the absence of pauses that would otherwise be required by the syntax. This absence accentuates the continuity that is being expressed in connecting the hair to the head, or the arms to the hands, and so on. In the transcription I just gave of the sequence I got my this I got my that, I tried to approximate the absence of pauses by omitting punctuation at those points where a pause is syntactically needed but performatively omitted. This absence of pauses is especially noticeable in the part of the song that pours out the following stream of monosyllables: "I got my hair I got my head I got my brains I got my ears I got my eyes I got my nose I got my mouth I got my teeth I got my tongue, …" For the metonymy to work, the mind’s eye has to visualize in rapid-fire sequence the parts of the human body as they connect to each other here. And the wording of the metonymy as we hear it can do the work of imagining for us these connections.
0§10. For George as the Self who is singing and dancing this extravaganza of organic continuity, it all comes naturally: his body, in all its connectivity, is his self, and this self extends metonymically from his own members—the members of his own body—to the members of the family that is being artificially created in the words of his song. This act of creation is most intrusive, since the self is boldly becoming all too familiar with everyone in the immediate proximity. So, the alien character of a hostess at an elite dinner party now becomes the familiar character of your own mother. And then your mother’s daughter becomes your own sister. And then, the next thing you know, all these alien people are transformed into members of George’s artificial family, becoming mother, sister, brother, and cousin to the Self. All get connected. When I say "your own mother," I am deliberately referring here to a personal "you" as the reader, not to an impersonal "one" as in the expression "one’s own mother." After all, metonymy has the power to draw the unfamiliar toward the familiar, which verges on the personal.
0§11. Even if you add to the mix someone whom George addresses simply as "man," surely this man too must be somehow co-opted into a relationship of familiarity. As he sings the words "I got good times, man," the George of Forman’s film Hair is looking at one particular man—looking him straight in the eye while addressing him as ‘man’. This man is Claude (acted by John Savage), a young draftee who is waiting to be shipped off to the Vietnam War. A fellow intruder at the elite dinner party, Claude has been befriended by George and, by the time the whole story is finished, George will selflessly contrive to take the place of Claude on a transport plane flying off to Vietnam and carrying its cargo of draftees to their doom. So, in the end, it is George, not Claude, who will be killed in the Vietnam War. George will have given up his life for the man he is now addressing simply as "man" in his song. He will become that man’s other self, and this selfless selfhood becomes his ultimate metonymic gesture of connecting with the familiar.
0§12. I should stress that the actual sequence of connectivity for George’s would-be family members in this song and dance seems at first arbitrary, just as the sequence of his body parts, of his own bodily members, seems arbitrary—except for the one simple fact that George’s wording starts from the top down, focusing on the shock of curly hair on top of his head. You would think that his hair became the first extension, metonymically, of his exuberant Self, and that his head came only second. And you would be right, since hair is what his story is really all about, as we can see even from the title of the whole story, which is Hair. In a variety of examples still to be shown, we will consider further the special metonymic power of hair. Metonymically, as we will see, hair has its own special attractions.
[ back ] 1. This working definition of the two words metonymy and metaphor follows closely the wording in Hour 4 §32 of my book The Ancient Greek Hero in 24 Hours (2013). From here on, I abbreviate the title of that book as H24H, and I will cite references to it by way of indicating the given “hour” (in this case, 4) and paragraph (in this case, 32). At the end of the present book, before I give my list of bibliographical references, I insert a list of all bibliographical abbreviations such as H24H.
[ back ] 2. Jakobson 1956:60–62, 76 [1990:119–120, 129].
[ back ] 3. See in general Ducrot and Todorov 1979:111, with references.
[ back ] 4. μεταφορὰ δέ ἐστιν ὀνόματος ἀλλοτρίου ἐπιφορὰ ἢ ἀπὸ τοῦ γένους ἐπὶ εἶδος ἢ ἀπὸ τοῦ εἴδους ἐπὶ τὸ γένος ἢ ἀπὸ τοῦ εἴδους ἐπὶ εἶδος ἢ κατὰ τὸ ἀνάλογον.
[ back ] 5. μετωνυμία ἐστὶ μέρος λόγου ἐφ’ ἑτέρου μὲν κυρίως κείμενον, ἕτερον δὲ σημαῖνον κατὰ τὸ οἰκεῖον, οἷον “ὑπείρεχον Ἡφαίστοιο”, ἀντὶ τοῦ πυρός, ὅπερ ἐστὶν οἰκεῖον τοῦ Ἡφαίστου.
[ back ] 6. Philologie nämlich ist jene ehrwürdige Kunst, welche von ihrem Verehrer vor Allem Eins heischt, bei Seite gehn, sich Zeit lassen, still werden, langsam werden —, als eine Goldschmiedkunst und -kennerschaft des Wortes, die lauter feine vorsichtige Arbeit abzuthun hat und Nichts erreicht, wenn sie es nicht lento erreicht. Gerade damit aber ist sie heute nöthiger als je, gerade dadurch zieht sie und bezaubert sie uns am stärksten, mitten in einem Zeitalter der “Arbeit”, will sagen: der Hast, der unanständigen und schwitzenden Eilfertigkeit, das mit Allem gleich “fertig werden” will, auch mit jedem alten und neuen Buche: — sie selbst wird nicht so leicht irgend womit fertig, sie lehrt gut lesen, das heisst langsam, tief, rück- und vorsichtig, mit Hintergedanken, mit offen gelassenen Thüren, mit zarten Fingern und Augen lesen… . The translation here is adapted (with only slight changes) from Hollingdale 1982:5.