‘Synecdoche’ and ‘metonymy’ are not words that one often hears. Yet we are presented with examples of both of these intriguing literary devices on a regular basis. Synecdoche is the use of part of a thing to represent its whole or, conversely, using a whole to represent a constituent part. The former is called ‘microcosmic synecdoche’ whereas the latter is called ‘macrocosmic synecdoche’. Synecdoche is meant to be understood figuratively, not literally.
Taking ‘microcosmic synecdoche’ first, i.e. using a part to signify a whole. An example: we can refer to a car as ‘wheels’, e.g. ‘Nice wheels, my friend!’ The speaker is actually complimenting the car as a whole, but choosing to mention only a _part_ of the car. (It is generally understood that he means the car as a whole unless, of course, he is actually referring to that specific part of the car… but don’t worry. You should easily be able to infer the correct meaning from context.) This use of ‘wheels’ to mean ‘car’ is an example of microcosmic synecdoche.
Another example: using the word ‘mouths’ instead of people. We might say that ‘a busy restaurant has many mouths to feed’. Of course the image of a mouth sitting at a table with nothing else attached to it – no body, head, face, etc. – is surreal (and faintly sinister). Clearly, when we say ‘mouths’ we are referring to the _people_ those mouths belong to, i.e. the customers. Using the word ‘mouths’ is more original than simply saying ‘customers’, however; it’s also more evocative, conjuring as it does the bizarre image of that singular body part, waiting to be served.
One more? If we were on a ship on a rough sea, it would be common to hear the captain cry: ‘All hands on deck!’ What he (or she) really means is that all _sailors_ are to report to the deck to help out – not just their hands! ‘Hands’, in this context, means sailors. ‘All crew on deck’ would also suffice – but it doesn’t have the same hearty, weather-beaten ring to it.
The examples above display use of microcosmic synecdoche. Macrocosmic synecdoche does the opposite and is often used in politics. Take the following sentences: ‘The White House today announced plans to scrap Obamacare…’; ‘Buckingham Palace has ordered its guards to be more vigilant following last week’s security scare…’ Obviously, it would be ridiculous to believe that every single person in the White House or Buckingham Palace was involved in those announcements. It would be the work of one person – or maybe a few people. Not everyone was involved in the decisions and the announcements.
This device is often used in newspapers, particularly in sports reporting. If a newspaper refers to the United States in a story about the Olympics, chances are they are referring to the United States Olympic Team – not the country (the USA) and all of its inhabitants!
Similarly, when we read a report about ‘the police’ making inquiries into a murder, we are actually referring to a few officers involved with the case – not the entire British police force.
Sometimes, we refer to a material that is used to make a particular object (or group of objects). For example, we can refer to credit cards by saying ‘plastic’, as that is the material they are made from. Or we might hear a gangster in an action film exhorting his adversaries to ‘Eat lead!’ Lead referring to bullets from guns, of course, not pencils!
Synecdoche is a useful figure of speech. Remember that, in all the examples above, the thing mentioned is part of (or the whole of) the thing being discussed: wheels for cars, hands for sailors; America for the United States, Downing Street for the Prime Minister’s office; etc.
When we use _metonymy_, however, we use a word that is closely associated with the thing being discussed _without actually being a part of it_. A very famous example is the sentence: ‘The pen is mightier than the sword.’ Here, ‘the pen’ refers to the written word, whilst ‘the sword’ refers to weapons and violence. The idea is that words can often be more powerful than warfare and confrontation.
This is metonymy, since ‘the pen’ and ‘the sword’ are not actually parts of the written word or warfare. Yes, they are used in both pursuits; but they are not an intrinsic part of the things being discussed, in the way that mouths or hands are actually part of a person’s body, or ‘feet’, in the following line, refers to the figure of Jesus Christ:
|_And did those feet in ancient times_|
|_Walk upon England’s mountains green_|
|William Blake, Jerusalem, 1808|
Sometimes the line between metonymy and synecdoche becomes blurred. If we look at the following sentence, are we studying an example of synecdoche or metonymy?
|_Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your EARS._|
|William Shakespeare, Julius Caesar, Act I|
If we understand that Mark Anthony here uses the word ‘ears’ to mean ‘attention’, we can see that it is an example of metonymy. ‘Ears’ do not literally form a part of the concept of attention, after all – ‘attention’ is an abstract noun and thus cannot contain body parts such as ears.
Why not check out our blog test to see how you manage with using synecdoche and metonymy?
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- “Tail Questions”
- “The Different Types of Nouns”
- “Cockney Rhyming Slang”
- ‘Synecdoche’ and ‘Metonymy’
- Uses of the word “wish”