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Synecdoche vs. Metonymy: Definitions & Examples

  • 0:08 Synecdoche: Parts and Wholes
  • 1:50 Synecdoche: Materials…
  • 3:01 Metonymy
  • 4:30 Synecdoche and…
  • 5:44 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Christopher Curley
Would lend your ears for a moment (or at least your eyeballs)? This lesson will explain what synecdoche and metonymy mean and how to spot them in a piece of prose or poetry.

Synecdoche: Parts and Wholes

Let's talk about synecdoche and metonymy, two very particular types of metaphorical expression in which one word is representative for another word or concept. But before we start, let me ask you: Have you ever checked out someone's wheels? Put on a Band-Aid after getting a cut? Cheered on New York during a football game? Even if you haven't, I bet you perfectly understand what each of those sentences mean: That when I say 'wheels' I mean 'car,' when I say 'Band-Aid' I mean an adhesive bandage and when I say 'New York,' I mean whichever team from New York happens to be playing.

These are all examples of synecdoche. In synecdoche, a part of something is used to refer to the whole entity, or a whole entity is used to refer to part of something. Some examples? This happens every time someone refers to 'Americans' when what they really mean is the citizens of the United States of America. 'Americans' is a synecdoche for the USA and does not include every member of the entire continents of North or South America (sorry, Canada!). Another synecdoche in everyday usage is when someone asks for your number. You know what they are really asking you for is your phone number and not just a collection of random digits. Here are a couple more examples:

  • 'Hey man, nice threads.' Threads, here, refers to clothes (part of something referring to the whole).
  • 'The stage was nearly set up, but the conductor didn't have enough space for the strings.' Here, 'strings' is synecdoche for a single unit: the 'string section.'

Synecdoche: Materials and Containers

Sometimes the material an item is made of can be used as synecdoche in place of the actual object. When a sword is referred to as 'steel,' for instance, this is synecdoche, since the entire sword is probably not made of steel. Moreover, the sword could be made of another metal altogether, but the historical connection between 'steel' and 'sword' is powerful enough to make it synecdoche nonetheless.

Likewise, if someone asks, 'Are you wearing Kevlar?' you might know from watching enough action movies that this is synecdoche for a bulletproof vest, while using 'plastic' at the grocery store means putting the bill on your credit card because credit cards are made of plastic. As with materials, containers can sometimes come to refer to the objects they contain - another form of synecdoche. As in, 'Nazie drank the cup,' which doesn't literally mean that Nazie swallowed a small cup, but rather that she drank the contents of the cup. Likewise, 'The bartender is giving away the bar,' means that he or she is giving out too many free drinks, which is the stuff the bar contains.

Metonymy

Metonymy is when a thing refers to something else that it's closely associated with, but unlike synecdoche, the part does not have to refer to the whole, or vice versa. Remember when we talked about how 'wheels' was synecdoche for 'car?' Here's the metonym version of the same:

'It was the town's mechanic, not the rich lawyer, who had the nicest ride.'

'Ride' here is a metonym for 'car' because riding is something you do in an automobile, but the 'ride' is not a part of the automobile and therefore does not qualify as synecdoche.

Here's another example: If someone asks you how many plates there are going to be at dinner, what they're really asking you is how many guests are going to show up. Plates are intimately associated with the act of eating, which is what dinner guests typically do, and therefore 'plates' is metonymic for 'dinner guests.' Similarly, if someone tells you 'You have nice kicks,' that's a metonym for shoes, since kicking is something you do with your feet and you wear shoes on your feet. It's not parts referring to wholes (that's synecdoche) but contextual associations linking one word to its meaning in conversation or writing. Technically, synecdoche is actually a very specific kind of metonymy, but synecdoche is a little easier to wrap your head around, and other types of metonymy don't get their own specific categories.

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