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Home The Light Articles from 1999 Metonymy A Figure of Speech

Metonymy A Figure of Speech

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Metonymy A Figure of Speech

It is contended: "A cup does not always mean a literal drinking vessel. Jesus prayed: `O my Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me...' (Matt.26:39). Thus `cup' in 1 Cor. 11:26 does not necessarily mean a literal cup. It is reasonable to say that the cup Jesus used was a figurative reference to the contents of the cup."

It is true that a cup does not always mean a drinking vessel. Sometimes it is used figuratively, even in the accounts of the Lord's Supper. But a cup is always as literal as the liquid it contains. If it contains a liquid, the cup is literal. Thus, when the Scriptures say that Jesus "took the cup, and gave thanks, and gave it to them, saying, Drink ye all of it" (Matt. 26:27), we can know the cup Matthew said he took was a literal cup. Reading further in verse 29, we also learn that it contained the fruit of the vine. It is noteworthy that Thayer, the Greek lexicographer, says the word "cup" in this verse is used "prop-erly"—literally (p. 533).

It is incorrect to refer to a liquid as a "cup" unless it is in a cup, whether talking about the fruit of the vine or other liquids. The fruit of the vine is not a "cup" in the clus-ter. It is not a "cup" when in a barrel. It in not a "cup" when in a jug. And further, it is not a "cup" when in a plurality of cups. It can only be referred to as a "cup" when it is in a cup as: "For as often as ye eat this bread, and drink this cup, ye do shew the Lord's death till he come" (1 Cor. 11:26). We "drink a cup" by drinking what the cup contains. To drink a bucket, the liquid must be in a bucket, etc. Had Jesus told the apostles "drink these cups," the drink element could not have been in only one cup. Paul did not say, "For as often as ye...drink these cups" because a plurality of cups was not involved. This is a figure of speech called metonymy, where the container is named for the thing contained. We may be unconscious of it, but it is a very common figure of speech used by all. Even our grand-mother would say, "the kettle is boiling," when she meant the water in the kettle was boil-ing. She may have never heard of metonymy, but she used the figure nonetheless. If there was only one kettle, she would say "the kettle is boiling." If two or more, she would say "the kettles are boiling." By saying "the kettle is boiling" we can know positively that only one kettle is involved. Further, if grandmother says, "Here is a cup; let it cool a bit, then drink it," no one has any difficulty understanding that there is a cup involved, and only one. We also understand that grandmother means we are to drink the contents of the cup and not the cup itself.

Similarly, when we say, "She set the cup of coffee before her husband and he drank the whole cup in one long swallow," no one argues that from this account we cannot know how many cups were involved. Everyone knows there was a single, literal cup which contained coffee, and by drinking the coffee, we may properly say that he drank the cup, clearly meaning the contents of the cup. We "drink a cup" by drinking what it contains. If a plurality of cups is involved, we would say, "She set the cups before him and he drank them." If Jesus drank from a bottle, it would be called "the bottle of the Lord." Had it been in many cups, the Record would say "the cups of the Lord."

When the contents of the Communion cup is called a cup under the figure of metonymy, the drinking vessel is as literal as the fruit of the vine in the vessel, and without the vessel there could be no metonymy.



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