Luke Taylor

Grammar Grater®

with Luke Taylor


Episode 117: Word on the Street

This week on Grammar Grater, we're talking about a figure of speech called metonymy. According to the Bloomsbury Grammar Guide by Gordon Jarvie, metonymy is a figure of speech that refers to someone or something through the use of an associated term.

Webster's New World College Dictionary describes the formation of the word metonymy. It comes from the Greek prefix meta-, which can mean a change, alteration or transcendence, coupled with the Greek word onyma, which means name.

Fowler's Modern English Usage provides some well-known examples of metonymy.

  • the stage to represent theatre
  • "the pen is mightier than the sword" signifies that the written word is more powerful than war


Metonymy tends to use a lot of place names as shorthand for larger concepts or organizations. This is a device that's frequently used in journalistic writing. Here are examples:

The White House to represent the U.S. Presidency
Washington to represent the American government
Wall Street to represent business
Hollywood to represent the film industry
Whitehall to represent the British government
Ottawa to represent the Canadian government
Broadway to represent the New York theatre scene
Detroit to represent the U.S. auto industry
Madison Avenue for the advertising industry
Silicon Valley for the IT industry

As we've said, these devices are common in journalism. Not surprisingly, there's a famous London street that is metonymy for newspapers and printing. To give us the scoop on that, we spoke to David and Mary Tucker of London Walks, Ltd., London's award-winning walking tour company.

"If you say Fleet Street," Mary says, "people immediately think of newspapers and printing."

Fleet Street's association with the printing industry can be traced to the year 1500, when William Caxton and his associate—the wonderfully named Wynkyn de Worde—brought the first printing press to England and set up shop in Fleet Street.

"He moved there because he was near the church bishops and near the lawyers," Mary explains. "They were the two groups of people who could read [at that time], so it made sense to be in that area."

Another historical peg to Fleet Street is that during the 1700s, Dr. Samuel Johnson lived in Gough Square, just north of Fleet Street. "Dr. Johnson of course wrote one of the early English dictionaries," Mary says. "His life was dedicated to the English language, so it's very appropriate I think that he's also there off of Fleet Street."

During the late 19th century and most of the 20th century, Fleet Street was home to most of England's newspapers. Evelyn Waugh, in his novel Scoop, captures the spirit of Fleet Street's heyday.

Today, no newspaper headquarters remain in Fleet Street. Mary and David tell us that many of the newspapers have moved to Docklands, in London's East End. "One Canada Square, which is the tallest building in London, is now known as ‘Vertical Fleet Street' because many of them have their offices there," Mary says.

David Tucker and 17 of the London Walks guides have recently published a book called London Stories: London Walks. Adam Scott, one of the London Walks guides and a journalist himself, wrote the chapter on Fleet Street. David reads a passage of Adam's chapter on Fleet Street, which describes that even though there are no more newspapers there, the name Fleet Street "remains soaked in ink."

Listen to the complete episode to hear metonymy explained and to hear more of the Tuckers' explanation of Fleet Street.

Music from this episode: "Panic" by the Smiths; "Where the Streets Have No Name" by U2

Sources: Bloomsbury Grammar Guide by Gordon Jarvie; Webster's New World College Dictionary; Fowler's Modern English Usage by RW Burchfield; London Stories: London Walks by David Tucker, et. al.

Links: London Walks; Dr Johnson's House; London Walks Blog

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