Exploring Metonymy at the Town Hall

westminsterIt has recently become fashionable within Oxford University Press to refer to its large department meetings where presentations are made as town halls. OUP is not alone here as this phrase has become commonplace in the business world. But why is it used? A business is not a town and the meeting is often not even held in a hall, especially now with the popularity of online meetings.

The usage comes from North America where a town hall meeting is one held by local officials to discuss a topic with the public, originally in an actual town hall building. Using the word town hall to mean this kind of meeting is an example of metonymy (where something is referred to by a word closely connected with it). This is often a tricky area for learners of English because it departs from the core meaning of the word but it’s worth learning some of these examples, especially to make it easier to read newspaper articles.

Common examples of metonymy are place names (toponyms). So, for example, the high street can be used to mean physical shops as a group in a sentence like “online shopping is killing off the high street”. And actual street names are a useful shorthand for whole fields of activity: Madison Avenue (US advertising), Wall Street (US finance), Fleet Street (UK press – even though newspaper businesses have now left this London street), or Hollywood (US film industry).

The feature is particularly frequent in political language, so for example Canberra, Holyrood, Ottawa, Westminster and Washington stand for the Australian, Scottish, Canadian, UK and US governments as a whole, and the buildings Number Ten (Downing Street), the White House, and the Elysée Palace for the UK, US and French prime minister or president. This allows for some, on the face of it, potentially confusing sentences such as “Holyrood is on a collision course with Westminster”.

But it’s not all about places. Words for some very simple everyday objects can have much wider meanings, especially in more colourful language. Take bottle, pen, suit and wheels. So the bottle comes to mean alcohol (“they are too fond of the bottle”), the pen comes to mean writing (“she gave up marketing for the pen”), a suit can be a negative word for a businessperson (“the suits are out of touch with their workforce”), and your wheels are your car in informal language (“I had to take the train, I’ve got no wheels”).

We use this kind of figurative language because it is more efficient and creates an image but you need to know that you should ignore the literal meaning in order to understand what is meant. So if you’re invited to a town hall, there’s no need to look at a map or get on the bus.

Patrick White is Product Director for ELT Dictionaries and Reference Grammar. After teaching English in China, he worked as a translator before falling into dictionary publishing and he’s been unable to pull himself out since.


Author: Oxford University Press ELT

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