Places and figures of speech: metaphor, metonymy and synecdoche


figures of speech metaphor metonymy Ares Kalandides

by Ares Kalandides

This image, which appeared on TIP’s (Berlin city magazine) Facebook page on 29th July 2016, depicts a map of Berlin, where boroughs have been replaced by types of fast food. I find the map very funny, but also an interesting case to think about place-related connotations. Before I get into that, let me explain what is what (starting from the outer left and then moving clockwise). Spandau: “SPANDAU”; Reinickendorf: “Currywurst (West)”; Pankow: “Vegetarian Spring Roll”; Lichtenberg: “Nr 131”; Marzahn-Hellersdorf: “Pelmeni”; Treptow-Köpenick: “Currywurst (East)”; Neukölln: “Döner & Schawarma”; Tempelhof-Schöneberg: “Foccacia & Co”; Steglitz-Zehlendorf: “We don’t serve fast food”; Charlottenburg-Wilmersdorf: “Crunchy rolls with Tête de moine from Butter Lindner”; Mitte: “Sushi & Sashimi”; Mitte: “Bio-Burger”.

figures of speech metaphor metonymy Ares Kalandides
Berlin’s administrative map

But this is also how mental associations function; they simplify complexity, they unify fragmentation, they exclude difference, they use symbols and produce stereotypes.

Although the main joke is based on metonymy (people in Friedrichshain-Kreuzberg are supposed to consume bio-burgers so bio-buger comes to stand for the district etc.), the map is more complex as it introduces several elements of surprise. In a kind of personification, the first person is used for the bourgeois area of Steglitz-Zehlendorf, where “We don’t serve fast food” – obviously. Spandau has no connotations whatsoever – it’s just SPANDAU (in capital letters). This is probably because for some people Spandau is not even Berlin stricto sensu, so the map reinforces this perception. Then there is the McDonald’s/Burger King outer belt in Brandenburg, based on the very real high frequency of multinational fast-food chains in the countryside around Berlin. But let me first explain the metonymic ones:


Currywurst is an unpalatable concoction allegedly typical for Berlin (it seems that it is a modern-day, post-war invention) consisting of a steamed, then fried sausage with a curry ketchup. It is broadly considered to be working-class food and appears here in two versions: West (Reinickendorf) and East (Treptow-Köpenick). The “Vegetarian Spring Roll” (no translation necessary) is probably a reference to the perceived “bobo”[1] population of Prenzlauer Berg, a southern neighbourhood in the borough of Pankow. “Nr 131” for Lichtenberg – a borough with a large Vietnamese community – refers to an often ridiculed practice, common in “ethnic” restaurants with complicated food names on the menu, which consists in ordering using numbers instead of names. “Pelmeni” is an allusion to the large German-Russian population in Marzahn-Hellersdorf and maybe a tongue-in-cheek reference to the most “eastern” of all Berlin boroughs. Neukölln with large Turkish and Arabic communities features “Döner & Schawarma” (no surpise there), while in the case of Tempelhof-Schöneberg the map highlights the preference of (former) West Germans for Italian food. In Charlottenburg-Wilmersorf, an urban middle-bourgeoisie buys rolls with French cheese at a posh delicatessen chain; Hipster-Mitte delights in Sushi & Sashimi, whereas Friedrichshain-Kreuzberg with its street-food fad and its obsession with organic food consumes “bio-burgers”.


The map is obviously an insider joke. In order to understand it you need to know both Berlin and the mentioned fast food. But even that is not enough: you also need to know the connotations of both the types of fast food and Berlin’s boroughs. Here are some first observations:

Firstly, mental associations are culturally produced and are only filled with sense in a particular cultural context. Take for example Nr 13: First you need to know that the borough is Lichtenberg (large Vietnamese community) and then you also need to know about the practice of ordering using numbers. Yet, it is most probable that a large number of Berliners will share the same mental associations with the places and the foods, so that the map’s sense of humour is not lost on them.

The second observation here is that place connotations function in both metaphoric (s. my blog entry here on both metaphors and anthropomorphism) and metonymic ways or – put in simple words – there can be mental associations between unrelated (places and DNA) or related (Döner and the borough of Neukölln) entities. Just to illustrate the latter: I remember a game we used to play when we were teenagers, which consisted in guessing a person through apparently unrelated questions. “What food would she be if she were a food?” (note: not “what food does she like?”); “What colour would he be if he were a colour?” etc. Here the answers had nothing to do with the individual in question, but were linked to it through common connotations (if blue is a warm colour for me, and my friend is also warm, then blue would be a colour for him). That is a metaphor, whereas the Berlin map is based on metonymy. Neither metaphor nor metonymy are based on arbitrary connections. There is always either a direct or a mediated relation between the two elements.

Third, there is another metonymic extension at play – a synecdoche. Pars pro toto (or the part for the whole), where for example Prenzlauer Berg “bobos” stand for the whole – otherwise extremely heterogeneous – borough of Pankow. But this is also how mental associations function; they simplify complexity, they unify fragmentation, they exclude difference, they use symbols and produce stereotypes.

The above may be interesting to thing again not only about the ways that mental associations with places function, but also about what devices we use to represent them and what these latter do. Creative mapping, as performed here through the connection between fast food and places, is definitely a very effective one.

[1] Bourgeois-Boèhme

This article first appeared on the blog Places.

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