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Metonymy is usually defined as a trope in which a term is used to denote an object which it does not literally refer to, but with which it is closely linked.

This link may be one of physical contguity, but not necessarily.

Metonymy is a figure of speech that involves transferring a name from one thing to another on the basis of certain typical kinds of relations: designating the effect with the cause, the whole with a part, the contents with its container.

An example would be "a sail on the horizon" for "a ship on the horizon."

Metonymy is a fundamental notion supporting Lacan's thesis that "the unconscious is structured like a language."

It is analogous with the Freudian concept of "displacement" and refers to the problematic of desire and demand.


However, Lacan's use of the term owes little to this definition apart from the notionn of contiguity, since it is inspired by the work of Roman Jakobson, who established an opposition between metonymy and metaphor.[1]

Following Jakobson, Lacan links metonymy to the combinatorial axis of language, as opposed to the substitutive axis.

(For example, in the sentence 'I am happy,' the relation between the words 'I' and 'am' is a metonymic relation, whereas the possibility of substituting 'sad' for 'happy' depends on the metaphoric relation between these two terms.)


In his most detailed work on the subject, Lacan defines metonymy as the diachronic relation between one signifier and another in the signifying chain.

Metonymy thus concerns the ways in which signifiers can be combined/linked in a single [[signifying chain ('horizontal' relations), whereas metaphor concerns the ways in which a signifier in one signifying chain may be substituted for a signifier in another chain ('vertical' relations).

Together, metaphor and metonymy constitute the way in which significations is produced.


Lacan provides a formula for metonymy.[2]


This formula is to be read as follows.

On the lefthand side of the equation, outside the brackets, Lacan writes f S, the signifying function, which is to say the effect of signification.

Inside the brackets he writes S . . . S', the link between one signifier and another in a signifying chain.

On the righthand side of the equation there is S, the signifier, and ( - ), the bar of the Saussureean algorithm.

The sign = is to be read 'is congruent with'.

Thus the whole formula reads: "the signifying function of the connection of the signifier with the signifier is congruent with maintenance of the bar."

The formula is meant to illustrate Lacan's thesis that in metonymy the resistance of signification is maintained, the bar is not crossed, no new signified is produced.


Lacan puts his concept of metonymy to use in a variety of contexts.

Metonymy and Desire

Lacan presents metonymy as a diachronic movement from one signifier to another along the signifying chain, as one signifier constantly refer sto another in a perpetual deferral of meaning.

Desire is also characterized by exactly the same never-ending process of continual deferral; since desire is always "Desire for something else,"[3] as soon as the object of desire is attained, it is no longer desirable, and the subject's desire fixes on another object.

Thus Lacan writes that "desire is a metonymy."[4]

Metonymy and Displacement

Lacan also follows Jakobson in linking the metaphor-metonymy distinction to the mechanisms of the dream work described by Freud.

However, he differs from Jakobson over the precise nature of this link.

Just as displacement is logically prior to condensation, so metonymy is the condition for metaphor, because "the coordination of signifiers has to be possible before transferences of the signified are able to take place."[5]

See Also


  1. Jakobson 1956
  2. Lacan, Jacques. Écrits: A Selection. Trans. Alan Sheridan. London: Tavistock Publications, 1977. p.164
  3. Lacan, Jacques. Écrits: A Selection. Trans. Alan Sheridan. London: Tavistock Publications, 1977. p.167
  4. Lacan, Jacques. Écrits: A Selection. Trans. Alan Sheridan. London: Tavistock Publications, 1977. p.175
  5. Lacan, Jacques. The Seminar. Book III. The Psychoses, 1955-56. Trans. Russell Grigg. London: Routledge, 1993. p.229