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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 proposed the following symbolic formula for metonymy: This formula represents the fact that any new signifier (S0) intervenes because it is contiguous with a prior signifier (S). Metonymy is best illustrated by the kind of displacement that takes place in dreams. The Freudian concept of displacement emphasizes the shift of value and of meaning. What usually happens is that words and feelings, in a distorted and disguised form, are transferred to nearby material. Lacan insisted that metonymy resists being meaningful by always producing apparent nonsense, as is usually the case with the manifest content of a dream.

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 fllows 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]

Another Definition

To the overall conception of linguistics he borrows from Saussure Lacan adds Roman Jakobson’s distinction between metaphor and metonymy:

On the basis of a distinction between two kinds of aphasia, Jakobson distinguished two fundamentally opposed axes of language: the metaphorical axis which deals with the selection of linguistic items and allows for their substitution, and the metonymic axis which deals with the combination of linguistic terms (both sequentially and simultaneously). Metaphor thus corresponds to Saussure’s paradigmatic relations (which hold in absentia) and metonymy to syntagmatic relationships (which hold in praesentia). (Evans 111)

That is, metaphor can be seen as having a vertical relationship, in which the line between the signifier and the signified is crossed, as the signifier passes over into the signified and a new signifier is produced. For example, in the metaphor "Juliet is the sun" the various signifiers that might have stood in place of "the sun" (glorious, bright, fair, beautiful) thus pass through the barrier between the signifier and the signified, joining that object designated as "Juliet," and become signifieds of the new signifier, "the sun" (this example is drawn from Evans 111). A compression of linguistic space and relations, metaphor is the direct substitution of one signifier for another such that the second signifier ("the sun") supersedes the first (glorious, bright, fair, beautiful) in relation to the signified ("Juliet"). This process is the basic structure of identification as it occurs in the imaginary "since [it] consists in substituting oneself for another" (Evans 113). And insofar as this process escapes full symbolization (i.e. insofar as it is a compression of language that brings the imaginary into play as an equal partner in the linguistic production of meaning), Lacan reads it as the basic structure of the symptom, as an indicator of a breakdown of the process of symbolising the imaginary: "if the symptom is a metaphor, it is not a metaphor to say so […] the symptom is a metaphor" (Ecrits 175).

The second term which Lacan borrows from Jakobson to fill out his understanding of the symbolic order is metonymy: "following Jakobson, Lacan links metonymy to the combinatorial axis of language, as opposed to the substitutive axis" (Evans 113). If metaphor is a process of substitution, whereby one signifier comes to stand in for another in relation to a given signified, then metonymy is a purely diachronic movement above the barrier separating signifier from signified. In contrast to the vertical motion of metaphor, it is a horizontal movement along the chain of signification, as "one signifier constantly refers to another in a perpetual deferral of meaning" (Evans 114). As the only realm in which meaning is generated, the symbolic’s dependence on the metonymic function of signifier relations thus becomes the primary focus of Lacan’s concern with language. He emphasises the metonymic deferral of meaning that takes place in the incessant play of signifiers, referring to the ready movement of the chain of signifiers over the signifieds as glissement (slippage). This designation of the movement along the signifying chain as a slippage emphasises Lacan’s re-writing of Saussure’s concept such that the relationship between signifier and signified ceases to be stable (if arbitrary) and becomes profoundly unstable.


Primal repression and the metaphor of the name of the Father impose the mediation of a signifier upon desire. The signifier of the name of the Father initiates the alienation of desire in language. Desire can no longer operate directly. Insofar as it takes the form of speech and is expressed as demand, desire becomes nothing more than a reflection of itself. Increasingly lost in the chain of signifiers, desire refers to an indeterminate series of objects, one after another, that are substitutes for the lost object (das Ding), and thus it refers to an indeterminate series of signifiers that symbolize these substitutive objects.

Desire always refers to something fundamentally other than the objects it aims for or the signifiers that symbolize them. Thus desire inevitably follows the path of metonymy. Because desire is expressed by a symbolizing demand, it always designates a desire for the whole (the lost object) by expressing a desire for a part (the substitute object), just as the metonymic figure "a sail on the horizon" designates the whole (a ship) by a part (a sail).

See Also


  1. Jakobson 1956
  2. E. 164
  3. E. 167
  4. E 175
  5. S3. 229
  • Lacan Jacques. (1993). The seminar of Jacques Lacan. Book 3: The psychoses (Russell Grigg, Trans.). New York: W. W. Norton. (Original work published 1981; originally presented 1955-1956)
  • ——. (1998). Le séminaire. Book 5: Les formations de l'inconscient, 1957-1958. Paris: Seuil.
  • ——. (2002).Écrits: A selection (Bruce Fink, Trans.). New York: W. W. Norton