Creative work metonymy

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Sex and the City 2 premiered in London last night. Sarah Jessica Parker arrived in a black strapless dress from the house of her favorite British designer, and what she told her fans provided another interesting example of what Mark Liberman noted in a recent post on fashion talk:

There's only one person I could have worn tonight and that was Alexander McQueen.

Ms Parker didn't just say she was wearing Alexander McQueen; she actually used an expression quantifying over persons (only one person) as the understood object of wear (in the sense that she modified person with the relative clause I could have worn ___), and then clarified that the person was Alexander McQueen; and still the metonymic reading survived and was understood by fans and journalists alike.

This usage is a close relative of the construction Who are you wearing? that Mark drew attention to. It is a slight though not unprecedented extension of normal metonymy. It needs a special term; call it creative work metonymy.

I say it is not unprecedented because of examples like Who are you reading? (the phrase gets about 695,000 Google hits). When you say that you are reading Dan Brown, you are likely to mean not that you can look into his eyes and see what he's thinking but merely that you are engrossed in The Lost Symbol. But you can also ask someone who they are reading, or say that Dan Brown is the only person you read now. In creative work metonymy, a reference to a person is robustly construed as conveying a reference to their creative work product.

But that is a bit of an extension of ordinary metonymy, which is not so robust. Although we might say Pyongyang must be responsible after discovering that the Republic of Korea Navy's ship the Cheonan had been torpedoed in South Korean waters, we wouldn't say ??The only city that could have done this is Pyongyang. That would wreck the metonymy. It would sound (to me, anyway) too literal, and I'd want to protest, "It wasn't the city, it was the regime."

Similarly, although we might say Hollywood thinks people are stupid, meaning that the film industry people make movies that treat us as morons, it would ruin the metonymy to say something like ??One area of Los Angeles that thinks people are stupid is Hollywood. Again, that sounds literal: we'd react by thinking, "Hey, an area of Los Angeles can't have an opinion…".

To a modest degree, then, I think creative work metonymy is slightly different from the more familiar kinds, which is perhaps what drew Mark's attention to it.

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47 Comments »

  1. Stan said,

    May 28, 2010 @ 7:11 am

    Writing something earlier today, I referred metonymically to Sam Raimi’s films as "Sam Raimi", then decided to add the extra word for clarity. The context was fairly clear, but momentary ambiguity was also quite likely and therefore worth addressing. "Insert needed words."

  2. Jessie said,

    May 28, 2010 @ 7:33 am

    I don't have a problem with the metonymic readings of sentences like "The only city that could have done this is Pyongyang." When I read that sentence, I immediately assume it is metonymic. When I was younger, I worked as a barista, and I remember one of my coworkers saying, "The only one who's that picky is the tall-no-foam-double-shot-latte." That term was the shortened form of one customer's very specific order we frequently received, and we always referred to that customer as "the tall-no-foam-double-shot-latte." That particular sentence was the first time I had heard of the customer, and as a young student in linguistics, the example stuck in my mind; I would by no means say that a coffee order is a creative work, yet I still think that sentence works. Perhaps my dialect readily accepts borderline cases of metonymy that others might balk at…

    [Geoff Nunber wrote his PhD dissertation on the transfer of reference seen in referring to a latte-ordering customer as "the tall-no-foam-double-shot-latte." —GKP]

  3. Johan Larson said,

    May 28, 2010 @ 8:00 am

    Her statement would sound much less odd to me if she had said "designer" rather than "person."

    [Yes, I think you're right. —GKP]

  4. Ian Preston said,

    May 28, 2010 @ 8:10 am

    The Pyongyang example sounds odd to me primarily because most cities don't host regimes. It wouldn't sound so odd to me to say it were the only capital that could have done this. Isn't that, albeit somewhat qualified, still metonymy?

    Some examples from a quick web search:

    "Beijing is the only capital that has any influence over Pyongyang"

    "Moscow is the only capital that views the enlargement of both NATO and the EU as threatening"

    "Washington is the only capital that fails to understand that its blockade is absolutely immoral and irrational."

    "Surely Caracas is not the only capital that recognizes the Western Sahara as an independent entity" (English slightly amended)

    [Very good point. Similar to the one about "designer" versus "person". —GKP]

  5. D.O. said,

    May 28, 2010 @ 8:34 am

    ??One area of Los Angeles that thinks people are stupid is Hollywood.

    Is "The only place that thinks people are stupid is Hollywood" better?

    [Doesn't seem much better to me. —GKP]

  6. John Lawler said,

    May 28, 2010 @ 8:59 am

    To this Midwestern ear,
      ?The only place that thinks people are stupid is Hollywood.
    just barely squeaks by, and
      The only town that thinks people are stupid is Hollywood.
    works just fine with a folksier town, whereas
      *The only district that thinks people are stupid is Hollywood.
    is pretty awful.

    Very interesting phenomenon. Jeff Heath told me once he thinks most of what we call "metaphor" is really metonymy if you look closely, and I have to admit he has a point.

  7. rootlesscosmo said,

    May 28, 2010 @ 9:32 am

    If I should walk into a friend's living room and hear a repertoire staple on the sound system–Beethoven Fifth Symphony, say–I might ask "Who is it?" expecting, and probably getting, not the name of the composer but of the conductor of this particular recorded version. Is this analogous?

  8. James said,

    May 28, 2010 @ 9:41 am

    The only town that thinks people are stupid is Hollywood.

    That's 'fine', John Lawler, in that it is perfectly grammatical, but it doesn't mean that the film industry thinks people are stupid. It could be a remark about the snootiness of the residents of the Hills.

  9. John Walden said,

    May 28, 2010 @ 9:46 am

    Is 'Did you see his Hamlet?' the same, or different?

  10. Dan T. said,

    May 28, 2010 @ 9:59 am

    How about "The only street I trust with my money is Wall Street"?

  11. John Lawler said,

    May 28, 2010 @ 10:09 am

    @James: Maybe. It certainly can mean that. But I think metonymy, like metaphor, is a nonce phenomenon that depends on current presumptions much more than on formal semantics, so one can't always say what a metonymic sentence "means", "can't mean", or "must mean", outside of context. You could try
      The only town that thinks people are stupid is Tinseltown.
    if you wanted that specific unambiguous sense.

    This works better, partly because of the repetition of town, and partly because the name Tinseltown connotes an entity that can be conceived as capable of having or displaying a detectable opinion. As Geoff pointed out, that's the crucial characteristic, and it's not perceptual, it's imaginal.

  12. Mr Punch said,

    May 28, 2010 @ 10:15 am

    Reading Dan Brown is not "a bit of an extension of the ordinary metonymy" such as suspecting [the hand of] Pyongyang. Dan Brown is a person, the actual author of certain works. (Compare "Only Exeter, New Hampshire, could have perpetrated this laughable farrago.") The Pyonyang example is either a double metonymy, or use of the capital to denote the nation as an actor – it's the extension. "The only country that could have done this is North Korea" works fine (and of course cities such as Athens and Venice used to engage in naval warfare).

  13. John Cowan said,

    May 28, 2010 @ 11:01 am

    But you can also ask someone who they are reading, or say that Dan Brown is the only person you read now.

    You can? I can swallow Dan Brown is the only author/writer I read now, but not with person: that brings up the literal interpretation again.

  14. D.O. said,

    May 28, 2010 @ 11:21 am

    It would hilarious if I am eating [somebody] could mean that you are eating their cooking. Can not figure out how to search for it. The searches "the only chef I can eat", "the only chef that I can eat", "the only chef that I eat" bring 0 ghits. Maybe people are not just that choosy.

  15. NW said,

    May 28, 2010 @ 11:33 am

    I read that quote in my morning paper and would have been quite flabbergasted if I hadn't remembered the earlier posting here. Yet I unproblematically accept and interpret standard examples in the literature such as 'the ham sandwich wants another coffee', without ever having been in with the waiting or bar crowd. Those seem natural transfers; the 'person' example does seem to violate something.

  16. James said,

    May 28, 2010 @ 12:23 pm

    JL,

    Ah, now I get it! I mean, now I can hear it the way you meant it.

    But it does sound like a joke, to me, roughly the way zeugma does.

  17. Andrew Clegg said,

    May 28, 2010 @ 12:36 pm

    The only building that could have issued such a despicable order is the Pentagon!

    Thinking of similarly weird analogues is actually quite good fun.

  18. YM said,

    May 28, 2010 @ 12:37 pm

    How about,

    – "There's only one designer I could have worn tonight and that was Alexander McQueen"?

    – "There's only one animal I could have worn tonight and that was mink"?

  19. HW said,

    May 28, 2010 @ 12:44 pm

    I was about to object that it should be "whom are you wearing" and not "who are you wearing", but some quick googling on "whom are you wearing" turned up a previous languagelog discussion as the first hit.

    "Who are you wearing?" still sounds wrong to me, though.

  20. J. C. Lorraine said,

    May 28, 2010 @ 1:06 pm

    Similarly, although we might say Hollywood thinks people are stupid, meaning that the film industry people make movies that treat us as morons, it would ruin the metonymy to say something like ??One area of Los Angeles that thinks people are stupid is Hollywood.

    I agree that that doesn't sound right, but I do think you can almost get away with "Hollywood is one of the only places in the country that thinks that people are stupid." I can't quite put my finger on the difference, though, and I'm not entirely sure that it works. I'm inclined to revise it to "…that treats people like morons," but I'm not sure if that's the same thing.

  21. IrrationalPoint said,

    May 28, 2010 @ 1:26 pm

    But you can also ask someone who they are reading, or say that Dan Brown is the only person you read now.

    It's unclear to me, however, that the following exchange works:

    A: I'm going to the opera tonight.
    B: Who?

    But "Who are you going to see?" (for "whose work will be performed?") works fine. Also fine is:

    A: I'm going to the opera tonight.
    B: Which? [or Which one? or Which opera?]
    A: Mozart.

    Speaker A can also say "I'm going to see Mozart tonight" or "I'm going to see a Mozart tonight" or the more overtly playful "I have a hot date with Mozart tonight" and these will all be understand as going to see a performance of something written by Mozart rather than an encounter with Wolfgang himself.

    I'm not sure why it is that the metynomy reading is sustained sometimes with "who" and not others.

    –IP

  22. Marcus Schwartz said,

    May 28, 2010 @ 1:32 pm

    ??The only city that could have done this is Pyongyang

    What does the superscripted double question mark here mean? (I'm assuming it's a special notation for something, and not just a data entry or character set error).

    My attempts at finding out via Google just turned up results about the Unicode U+2047 character ("⁇"). That appears to be meant for vertical text, so I assume it's unrelated.

  23. Zubon said,

    May 28, 2010 @ 2:03 pm

    Dialogue from our house, asking the reason for having a particular book in the car: "Why is Suzanne Collins in our trunk?"

  24. IrrationalPoint said,

    May 28, 2010 @ 2:25 pm

    Marcus Schwartz:

    The question marks (sometimes superscript) before a statement mean that it's unclear whether the statement is semantically/pragmatically acceptable. It's similar to "#" for ungrammaticality.

    –IP

  25. Dan T. said,

    May 28, 2010 @ 2:57 pm

    If the CD on your stereo happens to be one from The Who, then you can say as a statement, not a question, "I'm playing Who!" This might also work for a DVD of Doctor Who.

  26. Alex said,

    May 28, 2010 @ 5:22 pm

    Dan T., that line of reasoning will quickly get you into 'who's on first' territory.

  27. John Lawler said,

    May 28, 2010 @ 6:35 pm

    In On Raising (MIT Press 1974), Paul Postal based a whole series of arguments for Raising on these phenomena, and there's a paper by Ann Borkin ("Coreference and Beheaded NPs." Papers in Linguistics 5, 1972) on the same topic.

    "Beheaded NPs" here means metonymic references, like
      Chomsky seems/*wants to be hard to read.
    (the ungrammaticality of want is only in the metonymic
    usage, where Chomsky means "Chomsky's writing").

  28. Alex said,

    May 28, 2010 @ 7:06 pm

    Maybe this all started with the way we sometimes talk about music or film:

    "Who're you listening to?"
    "The Beatles."

    or

    "Who're you watching?"
    "Bob Hope."

    From there, it's an easy extension to:

    "Who're you [verb that expresses artistic appreciation]ing?"
    "[Artist]"

  29. Carl Offner said,

    May 28, 2010 @ 8:35 pm

    Well, I'm not a linguist — don't know much about metonymy — and I suppose this is somewhat tangential, but I was once told by a an emergency room physician that they had to be careful (particularly when speaking where non-medical people could hear) not to refer to patients by their symptoms. For instance, "the ruptured spleen in room 3".

  30. Carl Offner said,

    May 28, 2010 @ 8:37 pm

    Well, I'm not a linguist — don't know much about metonymy — and I suppose this is somewhat tangential, but I was once told by an emergency room physician that they had to be careful (particularly when speaking where non-medical people could hear) not to refer to patients by their symptoms. For instance, "the ruptured spleen in room 3".

  31. Private Zydeco said,

    May 28, 2010 @ 10:10 pm

    "If ever there existed on Earth an autonymic exurb the local industry bigwigs of which consistently underestimated the collective intellect of the recipients of that same city's highest-selling exported good…"

  32. Private Zydeco said,

    May 28, 2010 @ 10:59 pm

    The ensuing deconstruction could go without saying, but in the instance of
    "the tall-no-faom-double-shot-latte" the allusion is not that of a nation-state by way of the name of a capitol polity that subsists within the geopolitical delimitations of the former, but to a person by way of issuance of a punctilious drink order (their "druthers", given the possible permutations of each menu item, etc.). It is definitely a metonym, but a truer parallel may be drawn to
    that sub-type of metonym which employs the name of an outward attribute — i.e. as with an epithet — as a signifier, with the referent entity being the thing which exhibits that attribute; rather like one often observes in hears about from friends who read the classified ads, viz. "tall/small thin/portly brunette/
    blond" or whatever the case may be.
    Are there already discrete terms for such several types, on an ontologic basis as such?

    the question resolves upon the way it is in which "brunette" is a different distinguishing characteristic to use to describe a person by in whatever setting than the name of a capitol city is in describing not only a country but the whims and military actions of (the executive branch of) the ruling party in the relevant country.

  33. Private Zydeco said,

    May 28, 2010 @ 11:17 pm

    *ahem* Sorry. Language Hog.

  34. Private Zydeco said,

    May 29, 2010 @ 2:14 am

    That is, the one has but a drink, if not the abstract choice-of-drink-as -concept, satisfying the metonymic part-for-whole parameter; and the municipality of Pyongyang is not merely North Korea's favorite poison. The one is a more ephemeral prop, and the other a city….

  35. Private Zydeco said,

    May 29, 2010 @ 2:17 am

    Also, capital with an — nay, two "a"s. Also, [...].

  36. Mark F said,

    May 29, 2010 @ 9:25 am

    I have to say that the Hollywood examples are hard for me to think about because the patent falsehood of the content of the sentence keeps distracting me from the linguistic issues.

  37. marie-lucie said,

    May 29, 2010 @ 11:46 am

    "The devil wears Prada".

    (But Prada is a brand, I think, not the name of a single designer).

    If Tea Party adherents say they are "very angry with Washington", they don't mean they have a quarrel with the ordinary residents of the city, or even the city administration, only with the American government which is based in the city.

    I still remember the first time I heard someone say "I teach Shakespeare", which seemed extremely odd to me as an ESL learner, even though I quite understood that it meant "I teach a course dealing with the works of Shakespeare".

  38. Mel Nicholson said,

    May 29, 2010 @ 12:42 pm

    Contrast "Hollywood is the only city that thinks people are stupid." with "Hollywood isn't the only city that thinks people are stupid." Disdain is just too universal for the first example to pass factual constraints.

    I think Ian is on to something about the set as a whole represented (e.g.) by city being easily associated with the predicate rather than just the example.

    North Korea is the only country that would do this.
    *Pyongyang is the only city that would do this.
    Pyongyang is the only regime that would consider this.
    *Pyongyang is the only regime that would do this.

    I suspect it will be more productive to look at this as analogous to radial categories (a la Brugman, not Lakoff).

  39. Private Zydeco said,

    May 29, 2010 @ 7:30 pm

    @Mark F

    "the patent falsehood of the content of the sentence keeps distracting [...] from the linguistic issues."

    Rather. Extrapolation:
    That what is purported in a given utterance be with recognizeable consistency aligned with facts of the matter upon which its import bears must then be a necessary condition for coherence. That is to say, while soundly reasoned sentential structure correlates as formal (syntactic) rectitude, the relevance & meaning-in-context of the proposition/s at hand can not easily be cast off as dead weight.

  40. Private Zydeco said,

    May 29, 2010 @ 7:56 pm

    @Mel Nicholson

    ' "Hollywood isn't the only city that thinks people are stupid." '

    Apart from being less outlandish, more meaningful, et cetera, this,
    in a certain light, could be taken as commentary upon common
    expressions in quotidian speech across languages, calque or non-.

  41. Danny said,

    May 30, 2010 @ 4:03 pm

    This reminds me of the opposite metonymy that I've only seen in the [Jewish] Yeshiva world: referring to authors by the names of their works, as in "Refusing the pulpit rabbinate, the Chafetz Chaim settled in Radin", referring to Rabbi Israel Kagan by the title of his most famous work. I've never seen it in "normal" English.

  42. maidhc said,

    May 31, 2010 @ 3:58 am

    Danny: It wouldn't be too unusual if an actor were referred to by the name of his most famous character. For example, the death of Charlie Chaplin could be reported as "Little Tramp dies in Switzerland". Other examples might be William Shatner/Capt. Kirk and Leonard Nimoy/Mr. Spock.

    Venturing into music, some performers have become known by the titles of their songs, like Jerry Reed/Alabama Wild Man.

    I think it would possible for a book to stand in for an author, if the author was known particularly for a single book, and the title of the book was a description of a person, especially if the author had a persona resembling the character.

    "Catcher in the Rye visits local Starbuck's"
    "Tourists flock to Wizard of Oz grave site"
    "Studs Lonigan boyhood home declared heritage site"

    Admittedly it is hard work to come up with good examples. You certainly wouldn't say "Remember when The Naked Lunch appeared on Saturday Night Live?"

  43. rone said,

    May 31, 2010 @ 9:37 am

    I don't think "metonym" would be the right word, but i was thinking about certain food names, such as chèvre (goat) referring to goat cheese, or pozole referring to the soup instead of the actual pozole (hominy). What other foods fall under this category?

  44. Bob Lieblich said,

    May 31, 2010 @ 10:13 am

    Starbucks is running a TV commercial right now (for instant coffee, however much they try to disguise it) showing coffee cups with writing on them and metonymizing those writings. Thus (made up but analogous): "I Hate Mondays treated Old and Tired to Starbucks' new product." Cute the first few times.

    I bet the stuff tastes terrible.

  45. Nick Lamb said,

    June 1, 2010 @ 5:52 am

    The Guardian newspaper's photo gallery for this event (I wanted to see the dress in question) has as item 4 of 16 "Top British actor Amanda Holden all in pink". Except the word Top is struck through. Now, in informal writing this would tend to mean something like "I not only don't believe that Amanda Holden is a top actor, but I feel so strongly about it that I need to emphasise that explicitly". But what's it doing in the web gallery of a major national newspaper which is, one assumes, above such childish antics? Is this just an embarrassing accident for a new employee, transcribing rather too literally from some scribbled text? Or something else?

    http://www.guardian.co.uk/lifeandstyle/gallery/2010/may/27/sex-and-the-city-premiere?picture=363114306

  46. Charles said,

    June 1, 2010 @ 1:57 pm

    "major national newspaper which is, one assumes, above such childish antics"

    I think the celebrity beat is held to a somewhat lesser standard.

  47. Barney said,

    June 10, 2010 @ 1:00 pm

    Nick, yes that does look rather rude to Amanda Holden. The word "Top" on that page is marked by a "<del>" tag in the source code, which is intended to be used to mark text that has been deleted from a document.

    I suspect what happened might be that someone at the Guardian decided that the word "Top" was unnecessary and deleted it, and the software they were using was set to track changes so that other staff could see what had been deleted. Somehow this process went too far and the readers of the site were informed that the word had been deleted, instead of just not seeing it.

    There's nothing in the code for that page that explicitly says that the word should be struck through, although that is a predicable consequence of marking it as deleted text.

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