Metonymy from Figurative Language of the Bible

by James Neil

THE figure of Metonymy, or, as the word means, “change of name” is where one noun is put for another, or a pronoun is put for a noun, or a noun for a pronoun, where there is an intimate and settled relationship between the words thus exchanged. A few simple examples will best explain the meaning of this definition.

1. The place may be put for its inhabitants. “Woe to thee, Chorazin! Woe to thee, Bethsaida!” (Matt. 11:21), where Chorazin and Bethsaida are put for their respective inhabitants, because there is an intimate and settled relationship between a town and its inhabitants.

2. The effect may be put for the cause: “Jacob sware by the fear of his father Isaac” (Gen. 21:53), where “fear,” the effect, is put for “God,” the cause of that holy fear.

3. The leader may be put for his followers, or the teacher for his disciples, or the master for his servants. Thus Jesus says to Peter, “Get behind Me, Satan!” (Matt 16:23), where “Satan,” who had taught the Apostle to discourage Christ from suffering, is put for “Peter,” who for the time had allowed himself to be instigated by the Evil One. So the Lord Jesus cries, “Saul, Saul, why persecutest thou Me” (Acts 4:4, Acts 22:7), where the Savior is put for His poor, tried followers.

4. The symbol is put for that of which it is the badge. Thus Paul says of the civil magistrate, “he bears not the sword in vain “ (Romans 13:4), where “sword” is put for the magisterial authority of which, amongst the Romans, it was so eminently the badge, for, as I have shown on page 284, soldiers amongst that people, in our Savior’s time, answered to our police. Jesus describes Himself as “He that has the key of David” (Rev.3:7; see also Isaiah 22:22; Matt. 16:19; Rev. 1:18, Rev. 9:1, Rev. 20:1), where “ key “ is put for that government and power of which, amongst the Jews, it was the plain symbol, even as it is still throughout the East to this day.

5. The voice may be put for the person speaking. It is no mistake or inaccuracy, as some unacquainted with figures of speech have been tempted to suppose, when John, in the Revelation, says, “I turned to see the voice that spoke to me” (Revelation 1:12), but a bold and beautiful instance of Metonymy, where, because of the settled relationship between the “voice” and the person who utters the voice, the one can thus be put for the other.

Any thoughtful reader after a diligent search, which would prove as profitable as it would be interesting, could probably find for himself no less than forty distinct and delicate varieties of this important figure in the Bible, for it is of very frequent occurrence.

For twelve well‑marked species of Metonymy, some of very special importance, with numerous Scriptural examples, the reader is referred to the author’s Figurative Language Of the Bible, pp. 14‑19, James Nisbet & Co., 1892.