Why Metonymy is the Secret Ingredient of World Building

The classicist (Latin-and-Greek classics) in me loves literary devices. The weird ones. Usually I’d save the fancy words for poetry or English class, but there are absolutely ways to incorporate literary devices into a story without purpling your prose. In fact, as writers, we do a lot of these already without even thinking about it. I’m going to talk about two of my favorites: metonymy and its little sister, synecdoche. After years of picking out examples from Vergil and Ovid, I thought it might be fun to see how modern authors use these two devices in order to world-build in science fiction and fantasy.

What are metonymy and synecdoche?

Alright, first things first. Definitions. Metonymy is when you use a related word or an attribute to stand in for the word you want. Synecdoche is a specific type of metonymy where you use a word that is a part of the word you want.

So, if you’re writing about pirates who sail the deep (metonymy) and fight with steel (synecdoche), you’re using these devices. In the first example, we use an attribute of the sea, its depth, to name the sea. In the second, we use the material that a sword is made of to refer to the weapon itself. This is synecdoche because the steel is considered a part of the sword, rather than a related word.

These tools can help add flavor and a sense of other-worldliness to your writing. This isn’t to say you have overdo it with metonymy; however, it can be an excellent way to pull readers out of the real world and into yours, while enhancing the settings you have created, all with very few words. We want our worlds to be new and exciting without requiring a dictionary (Did anyone else’s copy of Dune have a glossary in the back?). It’s one way to world-build economically.

Examples in science fiction and fantasy

Using metonymy to world-build

When world building, there’s a balance between the familiar and the new. Your reader needs the familiar to get rooted in the world and orient themselves, but they also need the new so your world feels exciting.

In Victoria Aveyard’s Red Queen series, certain humans have powers, and each type of power is a given different name. Some of these names are metonymy. Characters who can freeze things and create ice are called “Shivers.” Literally, they’re ice makers, or freezers, but Shiver sounds a lot cooler (pun intended). Instead of having seers, Aveyard’s world has “Eyes,” who can see a short distance into the future. I love this one, because it gives the impression of being watched. With Eyes around, a rebellion becomes harder to plan and conceal. Fire manipulators are called “Oblivions.” Fire destroys, and oblivion is clearly a related word. It’s not as clear as choosing something with the word “fire” in it, but it adds to the world and enhances the reader’s experience and perception. In fact, the king and two princes are both Oblivions, and the very name evokes the destructive power that any monarch might wield. As rulers, they have significant influence over the life and death of their subjects, and calling them Oblivions captures this power.

Using metonymy as slang

There are different ways to describe an object or concept, depending on the character who encounters it. Sometimes, characters use slang or dialect in order to establish attributes, such as class or wealth. Heavy dialect can be cumbersome for a reader and difficult to understand. Instead of writing an accent, you can use word choice and metonymy to illustrate a character’s background. Maybe everyone on the Alliance ship uses the term “space” except for that one guy who calls it “the Black” because he comes from a small farming colony, and he still believes some of their superstitions about space. Or maybe it’s just habit.

In Firefly, Joss Whedon makes excellent use of metonymy to build slang, though he uses many other tools as well to give the viewer such an amazing experience. A wave is a communication, a brainpan is a head, and they do in fact refer to space as the Black. If you’re interested in looking at more Firefly slang and picking out other examples of metonymy, this site has a great list.

 

There are so many great examples of metonymy and synecdoche at work in sci-fi and fantasy, and this post barely scratched the surface. If you have a favorite example, I’d love to hear about it in the comments!

 

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