I have a question about metonymy and metaphors in English proverbs below:

An apple a day, keeps doctors away.

Meaning: Fruit is an important part of a healthy diet

Beggars can't be choosers.

Meaning: If someone gives you something you asked for, you should not complain about what you get.

Can we say that apple and beggars are metaphors? They might be metonymy however especially the word "beggar" has a stronger imageability and a different context than "a person who asks for something". The word "apple" can be directly generalized as fruit and the first proverb can be considered literal. So this may support apple being a metonymy.

Any comments or explanations in this issue are appreciated.

  • No, you can't. Metaphors are not words; they are frame mappings of one context onto another. See Lakoff and Johnson, for instance.
    – jlawler
    Jun 23 '15 at 16:16
  • Maybe I should have emphasized that I am trying to find out the linguistic metaphors not conceptual ones.
    – miette
    Jun 24 '15 at 1:24

This depends on how you think about metaphor and metonymy. In the rhetorical tradition, you'd have to be very specific about how you label each trope. E.g. distinguishing metonymy from synechdoche. But I don't generally find this approach helpful.

If you're interested in the conceptual underpinnings of proverbs, you're better off with the conceptual metaphor theory which thinks of both metaphor and metonymy as two broad structuring principles of human cognition. Subsuming analogy, parable, simile, etc. under metaphor and synechdoche under metonymy.

The key distinction between metaphor and metonymy from the conceptual metaphor theory perspective is that between similarity and contiguity (or relatedness). I wrote a more detailed comparison on MetaphorHacker.net.

With this in mind, you can easily see that in the first proverb, the apple stands for fruit (member of a category standing for category) which stands for health (cause for outcome) in a chain of metonymies. Doctor stands for illness (profession for area of expertise). So you can see that the conceptual domain is primarily structured metonymically. However, you also need the relationship of similarity to understand the whole proverb as 'if you eat fruit you will not get ill' by projecting the configuration into a real world situation.

The second proverb, on the other hand, does not depend on metonymy for its conceptual structure. It asks you to project the situation of somebody who is asking without being able to offer anything in return onto your own situation. Therefore, you always need to find something in a given situation that makes one person the beggar and another person the giver and something the gift. So for instance, if you really need a job and somebody offers your a job you don't like but you can't avoid taking it, you might say that this proverb applies here. This is very typical of how metaphors work.

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