Metaphor and Metonym: 


There is an amusing discussion of metaphor and metonymy in David Lodge's novel, Nice Work (1989), which is in the form of a dialogue between two people, Semiotic Robyn and pragmatic Vic.















“A typical instance of this was the furious argument they had about the Silk Cut advertisement... Every few miles, it seemed, they passed the same huge poster on roadside hoardings, a photographic depiction of a rippling expanse of purple silk in which there was a single slit, as if the material had been slashed with a razor. There were no words in the advertisement, except for the Government Health Warning about smoking. This ubiquitous image, flashing past at regular intervals, both irritiated and intrigued Robyn, and she began to do her semiotic stuff on the deep structure hidden beneath its bland surface.

It was in the first instance a kind of riddle. That is to say, in order to decode it, you had to know that there was a brand of cigarettes called Silk Cut. The poster was the iconic representation of a missing name, like a rebus. But the icon was also a metaphor. The shimmering silk, with its voluptuous curves and sensuous texture, obviously symbolized the female body, and the elliptical slit, fore-grounded by a lighter colour showing through, was still more obviously a vagina. The advert thus appealed to both sensual and sadistic impulses, the desire to mutilate as well as penetrate the female body.”

Semiotic Robyn – an informed female, begins a discussion with pragmatic Vic, sceptical to the end.

Read on…..

Vic Wilcox:   (spluttered with outraged derision) 'You must have a twisted mind to see all that in a perfectly harmless bit of cloth,'

Robyn:  'What's the point of it, then?' …. 'Why use cloth to advertise cigarettes?'

Vic:  'Well, that's the name of 'em, isn't it? Silk Cut. It's a picture of the name. Nothing more or less.'

Robyn:  'Suppose they'd used a picture of a roll of silk cut in half - would that do just as well?'

Vic:  'I suppose so. Yes, why not?'

Robyn:  'Because it would look like a penis cut in half, that's why.'

Vic:  (forced laugh to cover his embarrassment)  'Why can't you people take things at their face value?'

Robyn:  'What people are you refering to?'

Vic:  'Highbrows. Intellectuals. You're always trying to find hidden meanings in things. Why? A cigarette is a cigarette. A piece of silk is a piece of silk. Why not leave it at that?

Robyn:  'When they're represented they acquire additional meanings…  Signs are never innocent. Semiotics teaches us that.'

Vic:  'Semi-what?'

Robyn:  'Semiotics. The study of signs.'

Vic:  'It teaches us to have dirty minds, if you ask me.'

Robyn:  'Why do you think the wretched cigarettes were called Silk Cut in the first place?'

Vic:  'I dunno. It's just a name, as good as any other.'

Robyn:  "Cut" has something to do with the tobacco, doesn't it? The way the tobacco leaf is cut. Like "Player's Navy Cut" - my uncle Walter used to smoke them.'

Vic: (warily) 'Well, what if it does?'.

Robyn:  'But silk has nothing to do with tobacco. It's a metaphor, a metaphor that means something like, "smooth as silk". Somebody in an advertising agency dreamt up the name "Silk Cut" to suggest a cigarette that wouldn't give you a sore throat or a hacking cough or lung cancer. But after a while the public got used to the name, the word "Silk" ceased to signify, so they decided to have an advertising campaign to give the brand a high profile again. Some bright spark in the agency came up with the idea of rippling silk with a cut in it. The original metaphor is now represented literally. Whether they consciously intended or not doesn't really matter. It's a good example of the perpetual sliding of the signified under a signifier, actually.'

Vic (pausing for thought)  ..  (triumphantly) 'Why do women smoke them, then, eh?'    'If smoking Silk Cut is a form of aggravated rape, as you try to make out, how come women smoke 'em too?'

Robyn:  'Many women are masochistic by temperament,' 'They've learnt what's expected of them in a patriarchical society.'

Vic:  'Ha! …. I might have known you'd have some daft answer.'

Robyn:  'I don't know why you're so worked up,' Said Robyn. 'It's not as if you smoke Silk Cut yourself.'




 Vic:  'No, I smoke Marlboros. Funnily enough, I smoke them because I like the taste.'

Robyn:  'They're the ones that have the lone cowboy ads, aren't they?'

Vic:  'I suppose that makes me a repressed homosexual, does it?'

Robyn:  'No, it's a very straightforward metonymic message.'

Vic:  'Metawhat?'

Robyn:  'Metonymic. One of the fundamental tools of semiotics is the distinction between metaphor and metonymy. D'you want me to explain it to you?'

Vic:  'It'll pass the time,'

Robyn:  'Metaphor is a figure of speech based on similarity, whereas metonymy is based on contiguity. In metaphor you substitute something like the thing you mean for the thing itself, whereas in metonymy you substitute some attribute or cause or effect of the thing for the thing itself'.

Vic:  'I don't understand a word you're saying.'

Robyn:  'You told me you work in a factory making moulds, didn't you? Well, take one of your moulds. The bottom bit is called the drag because it's dragged across the floor and the top bit is called the cope because it covers the bottom bit.'

Vic:  'I told you that.'

Robyn:  'Yes, I know. What you didn't tell me was that "drag" is a metonymy and "cope" is a metaphor.'

Vic:  'What difference does it make?'

Robyn:  'It's just a question of understanding how language works. I thought you were interested in how things work.'

Vic:  'I don't see what it's got to do with cigarettes.'

Robyn:  'In the case of the Silk Cut poster, the picture signifies the female body metaphorically: the slit in the silk is like a vagina......'

Vic:  (flinching) 'So you say.'

Robyn:  'All holes, hollow places, fissures and folds represent the female genitals.'

Vic: 'Prove it.'

Robyn:  'Freud proved it, by his successful analysis of dreams,' …. 'But the Marlboro ads don't use any metaphors. That's probably why you smoke them, actually.'

Vic:  (suspiciously)  'What d'you mean?'

Robyn:  'You don't have any sympathy with the metaphorical way of looking at things. A cigarette is a cigarette as far as you are concerned.'

Vic:  'Right.'

Robyn:  'The Marlboro ad doesn't disturb that naive faith in the stability of the signified. It establishes a metonymic connection - completely spurious of course, but realistically plausible - between smoking that particular brand and the healthy, heroic, outdoor life of the cowboy. Buy the cigarette and you buy the lifestyle, or the fantasy of living it.'

Vic:  'Rubbish!' …. 'I hate the country and the open air. I'm scared to go into a field with a cow in it.'

Robyn:  'Well then, maybe it's the solitariness of the cowboy in the ads that appeals to you. self-reliant, independent, very macho.'

Vic: (with vigour) 'I've never heard such a lot of balls in all my life,'

Robyn: (thoughtfully)  'Balls - now that's an interesting expression.......'

Vic: (with resignation) 'Oh no!'

Robyn:  'When you say a man "has balls", approvingly, it's a metonymy, whereas if you say something is a "lot of balls", or "a balls-up", it's a sort of metaphor. The metonymy attributes value to the testicles whereas the metaphor uses them to degrade something else.'

Viv:  'I can't take any more of this,' ….. 'D'you mind if I smoke? Just a plain, ordinary cigarette?'


Thanks to David Lodge and Silk Cut