Metonymy is dead.
You probably don’t remember metonymy. At best, you know that it’s somehow related to synecdoche, but you can’t keep them straight.
Late in your senior-year English class, you’d stopped paying attention by the time they told you that metonymy was a kind of metaphor: a figure of speech for when a certain word stands in for something that it’s related to. For example: “This is our restaurant’s best dish.” “Freedom of the press.” “My heart will go on.” You’re not eating the physical dishware, granting freedom to the printing press, or maintaining your literal heartbeat so that you can listen to Celine Dion for all eternity. Each of those nouns stands for something else: food, what journalists write, terrible karaoke.
Or the most famous example, which may have been the first one you learned (if you were paying attention, which you weren’t): “The White House said …”
Before Donald Trump, “the White House said” was an effective catch-all for statements that came from the president, the president’s spokespeople, or other administration officials. Sadly, after four years of Trump, the classic metonymy example doesn’t work anymore. Like so many great American treasures, he has broken it.
The phrase “the White House said” first appeared in the New York Times in January 1937 (“President Roosevelt will visit Warm Springs, Ga. … the White House said today”). It would be another five years before the paper used the phrase again. Usage was sporadic for decades, until January 1964, when the phrase suddenly began appearing every few days. (Was the press, whiplashed by JFK’s assassination, subconsciously distancing a newly inaugurated President Lyndon Johnson from the presidency?)
Over the last month in particular, that metonymy link between “the White House said” and the “official” word has been irrevocably broken.
Shortly after Walter Reed Medical Center admitted Trump for COVID-19 treatment, “the White House” issued contradictory statements just minutes apart: a surprisingly optimistic outlook by Dr. Sean Conley, followed immediately by a much more dire statement by White House chief of staff Mark Meadows. Press secretary Kayleigh McEnany said Trump had “mild symptoms” on Friday, Oct. 2, while Meadows said that same morning that “he had a fever and his blood oxygen level had dropped rapidly.”
This wasn’t the first time. Trump’s own self-contradictions are well-documented, from the times he walked back saying Mexico would pay for a wall to denying he mocked a disabled reporter to changing the reason he fired FBI Director James Comey.
When the word coming from “the White House” is so often self-contradictory, the prime example of metonymy doesn’t stand a chance.
On the other hand, listen to Joe Biden speak. The man loves metaphors, especially metonymy. Just the other day in Georgia, his speech included: “We’re going to surprise the living devil out of everybody … When the carnie show goes through town … the light at the end of the tunnel … Donald Trump has waved the white flag … Trump was either locked in his sand trap at his golf course or in the bunker in the White House … the Wall Street types … Everybody does better all the way up the ladder … a chip on my shoulder …”
He even mentioned that earlier in the day he had been “up in Warm Springs, reflecting on Franklin Roosevelt.”
Long live metonymy?
The Angry Grammarian, otherwise known as Jeffrey Barg, looks at how language, grammar, and punctuation shape our world, and appears biweekly. Send comments, questions, and metalepsis to email@example.com.