Meronymy, derived from the root mer- meaning "part" (see mereology), is a relation in semantics that expresses the part-whole relation that lexical items may have. Examples of this are:


In this relation, the part is known as the meronym and the whole is called the holonym.

In theory, the meronymic relation is transitive, meaning that if an item is a part of a part, then that first item is part of the larger whole. For example if John has a scar on his elbow, we know that John has a scar on his arm. While this holds for many situations, it is certainly not perfect, as we can see in the following example:

There is a wasp on the steering wheel, there is a wasp on the car.

In this case, the wasp is in car, rather than on it. Meronymy doesn't make any ontological claims as to the real transitivity or precision of this relation. We are only concerned with describing the semantic relation that typically seems to hold between some word-concepts.

Meronymy is greatly influenced by issues of normality and prototypicality. Language users tend to have a sense of prototypical meronymic relations -- certain part-whole relations seem to be more normal or salient to us than others. How central an example may be seems to be based on the following characteristics:

  • Necessity
    Some parts are essential to their wholes. This is not necessarily an issue of logical necessity, more a canonical or well-formedness necessity. A finger is non-canonical if not part of a whole, and a well-formed hand must contain fingers. On the other hand, many parts can exist on their own, like the wheel of a bicycle. All things being equal, if there is necessity between two items, their relation will typically be deemed more prototypical.

  • Integrality
    How integral the part is to the whole, and how integrated it is. Examine: "The handle is attached to the door" and "The hand is attached to the arm" versus "The fingers are attached to the hand" and "The handle is attached to the spoon". It seems as if the second pair of relations is a bit odd because their items are more integrated than simply being "attached". The more something is integrated with something else, the more central the pair is in the notion of meronymical relationship.

  • Discreteness
    The more independent a part is, the more prototypical the relation is.
    Compare: finger-hand vs. finger print-hand. Also, tip of the tongue-tongue vs. tooth-jaw.

  • Motivation
    Does the part have a particular functional motivation, a raison d'etre. In general, 'good' parts have an identifiable function with respect to their wholes. The lid of a jar serves a specific, easily identifiable role. This makes it a more protoypical part than the tip of the tongue, which serves no easily identifiable role.

See also: Synonymy, Hyponymy.

Information from:
Cruse, Alan, Meaning in Language: An Introduction to Semantics and Pragmatics, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2000.

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