A metonymy:

... a thing or concept is referred to by the name of something closely associated with that thing or concept

The only example I can think of is tea. Tea can refer to the drink or the evening meal. I think the latter meaning only came about because an evening tea was accompanied by an evening meal and so the term itself became a shortcut for people to say "tea": I'm going to have tea.

It's safe to say that the drink (tea) has become a metonymy for the evening meal (tea).

I'm looking for a term to describe this process, when the original meaning of a word changes into something else, but both forms are used interchangeably?

I think semantic change or diachronic change could fit this definition but I'm not sure. Examples of semantic change from online give examples of words where the original meaning is no longer used and is replaced with its newer form. E.g. in Middle English meat used to refer to all types of food, where as today, meat refers to the animal flesh and food being reserved for all of the categories. Or gay meaning happy but now it's used in its derogatory form.

  • Where are you located that you hear "tea" to mean the evening meal? Tea is tea and also refers to a light afternoon snack. The British equivalent of coffee and donuts. – Xanne May 29 '18 at 19:54
  • North of England, x. I'm guessing you're from the South. – Chloe May 29 '18 at 19:55
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    I, too, have heard tea used in the UK in place of supper. I think there's a difference between a word's meaning actually changing—and a new "sense" being ascribed to an existing word. If you look in a dictionary, one sense of gay still is "happy," it's just that it's gradually becoming an archaic sense. I'm sure new senses are added simply because those senses become idiomatic. (And gain "official" entry in dictionaries once usage passes a certain threshold.) So, I'm not sure I'd call it change (at least in the case of tea) but . . . expansion? – Jason Bassford May 29 '18 at 20:13
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    It is common in rhyming slang for the original rhyme to be forgotten and the supplementary concept to linger. 'Apples and pears' are associated with stairs. Then the 'pears' is dropped and, latterly, 'apples' are associated with stairs. He came crashing down the apples and bashed his head. But I'm not certain that this counts as metonymy. – Nigel J May 29 '18 at 22:17
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    @Mari-LouA I disagree, a university website; lists the usage of tea as a metonymy for afternoon tea/supper (no. 4) under semantic change/shift. Also, tea is used to refer to evening meal in typically, Northern parts of England & others; The Guardian. - Tea with Grayson Perry, in particular "Tea, in this case, not being Earl Grey and cucumber sandwiches, but the working-class evening meal". – aesking May 30 '18 at 12:30

This is called a

dead metaphor

A phrase that was formerly a figure of speech, but by semantic shift, its literal meaning becomes what the metaphor applied to.

Another very related example is


It's primary literal meaning is a morning meal, but it is easy to see that it was created as a way to express literally 'breaking' a 'fast'. To go further, 'break' here is also a dead metaphor because nothing is being literally broken, that's just a metaphor for a ... let's say... sudden transition.

The idea is that the metaphor really doesn't apply anymore, the meaning of the signs is the new thing and the old meaning is not even considered.

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    Yes, 'dead metaphor' is a dead metaphor. – Mitch May 30 '18 at 13:55
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    Have you checked break in a good dictionary? Also, "There is debate among literary scholars whether so-called "dead metaphors" are dead or are metaphors." (Ibid.) – Kris May 31 '18 at 6:03

In your example of "Tea", it is a SYNECDOCHE. Other examples of a synecdoche are when a car is called wheels, and when a credit card is called plastic. Incidentally, I'm from New Zealand, and when we have a hot (roast) dinner at lunchtime, our light evening meal is called tea.

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It's the process of gradual metonymization where "Hollywood" starts with being the place where the movie industry is concentrated and moves on to also mean the industry itself, until we only understand "Hollywood" as being the industry and forget that it is still a geographic entity. Some day if the place no longer exists and the movie industry has also moved on to the cyber space, we know what "Hollywood" means but may not know why it's called so.

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  • I almost upvoted but you need to cite a reference that supports "metonymization", which my spellchecker is furiously underlying in red. – Mari-Lou A May 30 '18 at 8:33
  • @Mari-LouA Just Google it. Give the cold shoulder to your spell checker. After all, it underlines "Mari-LouA" just as furiously. – Kris May 31 '18 at 5:40
  • Paradis: "Metonymization" in "Defining Metonymy ..." p.61 books.google.co.in/books?id=CjVntUCGcqsC&pg=PA61 – Kris May 31 '18 at 6:21

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