February 11, 2005

Metonymy and Dean Wormer

I was giving directions to my house this morning, on the phone to a friend who was coming round for coffee (Chris Barker, the brilliant semanticist from UC San Diego, who is giving a talk here at UC Santa Cruz later today). "At the end of the cul de sac," I told him, "you'll see a driveway with a pile of mulch under a blue tarp; that's us." And I heard him giggle. I saw why. We are not a pile of mulch under a blue tarp, Barbara and me; rather, we live in the house behind it. This, of course, is a real-life occurrence of what the literary types call metonymy: as Webster puts it, "using the name of one thing for that of something else with which it is associated (as in spent the evening reading Shakespeare, lands belonging to the crown, demanded action by City Hall, ogling the heavily mascaraed skirt at the next table) : use of one word for another that it may be expected to suggest." And I was suddenly reminded of another amusing on-the-fly metonymy. A fine character actor, John Vernon, died this week. He played Dean Wormer in the movie Animal House (1978; technically called National Lampoon's Animal House). And one of the grimly serious lines Dean Wormer delivered with such aplomb, my very favorite was a wonderful piece of unintentionally inept metonymizing:

"The time has come for someone to put his foot down. And that foot is me."

Posted by Geoffrey K. Pullum at February 11, 2005 04:28 PM