Tuesday, October 02, 2007
All linguists, English teachers, communications experts, and students of language nationwide should hereafter celebrate September 20 as Metonymy Day in honor of today's proposed Senate resolution equating criticism of General Petraeus with personal attacks against all US troops.
The US Senate will make linguistics history today. Republican Senate Leader Mitch McConnell actually brought to the floor a bill based on a linguistic trope called "metonymy." The bill also makes history by trying to censure an ad. But the most "damning" part of the censure is not what is in the ad, but what is the heads of people who use the metonymy trope.
Here's an example of how metonymy works. It is a mental operation. If you say, "The US invasion toppled Saddam Hussein," you mean it toppled the government of Saddam Hussein. The Leader stands for the Institution he or she leads. In a frame containing both a leader of a government and the government, the Leader can stand for the Government.
This metonymy works for generals as well. A general in uniform reporting to Congress can be seen simply as himself. But if you use the Leader-for-Institution metonymy, you can see the general as standing for the entire armed forces. Thus, an attack on the general can be seen, if you use the metonymy, as an attack on the entire military. The use of the metonymy isn't automatic in this case. People can use it or not. If not, an attack on the general is just an attack on the general.
The Republicans' own use of this metonymy is coming up in the Senate today. It is in a Republican bill to censure the use of the metonymy -- by the Republicans themselves!
If this seems strange, it is.