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 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.
Synecdoche and Metonymy in Literature and Poetry
Now that we've identified synecdoche and metonymy for what they are, let's see if we can single out some examples of each in the following sentences:
I carry your heart with me (i carry it in
my heart) i am never without it (anywhere
i go you go, my dear; and whatever is done
by only me is your doing, my darling)
In this excerpt from E.E. Cummings' poem 'I carry your heart with me,' could you spot the metonymy? That's 'heart,' which in this case means 'love,' since the organ is closely associated with the feeling of love. Let's look at another example.
Marsh explored many western sites with mixed results after receiving various reports and maps. On hearing of interesting samples found in the Dakota badlands, he decided to explore the area in November of 1874. This move into the Wyoming Territory was accompanied by a full entourage of wagons and a number of hired hands to do the lifting and digging.
Spot the synecdoche? That's 'hired hands,' here, 'hands' referring to the workmen who did the lifting and digging. Remember that synecdoche is a very specific kind of metonymy in which parts refer to wholes or wholes to parts.
So let's recap. Synecdoche is:
- When a part of something is used to refer to the whole entity or a whole entity is used to refer to part of something.
- When the name of a material a thing is made out of is used in place of the thing itself. (Like 'leather' in place of 'leather jacket.')
- When the name of a container is referencing the thing contained within. (He drank three bottles last night, for instance.)
Metonymy, on the other hand, is when a word that is closely associated with another word is used in place of that word. Like 'the White House' referring to whatever the current presidential administration is. Or someone saying they 'have to put their eyes in,' referring to putting on contact lenses.
After finishing this lesson, you should be able to differentiate between synecdoche and metonymy and give examples of each.
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Synecdoche vs. Metonymy Activities
Differentiating between Synecdoche and Metonymy
Read the sentences below. Then, for each sentence, answer the questions that follow.
- King Leonard lost the crown through a series of ill-conceived plans.
- ''Your car is a rusted piece of junk! You need a new set of wheels.''
- The White House enacted an executive order to curb pollution.
- There are too many mouths to feed.
- Does this sentence feature a synecdoche or metonymy? How do you know?
- What does the synecdoche or metonymy represent in this sentence?
- What is the overall effect of either the synecdoche or metonymy? (Think of your audience and the reading experience.)
- Brainstorm at least one other synecdoche or metonymy that could also be used in the sentence without altering its meaning.
- Answer Key: 1: Metonymy (''crown'' is terms associated with the monarchy), 2: Synecdoche (''set of wheels'' is a part of a car that represents the whole), 3: Metonymy (''the White House'' is a term associated with the presidency that can stand in for it), 4: Synecdoche (''mouths'' is a part of the whole representing people).
Writing Synecdoche or Metonymy
- You have decided to write a short story based on some historical event you are interested in. It could be the fall of Rome through the eyes of a commoner or the American Revolutionary War through the eyes of a British spy. Your short story should be at least 500 words and feature at least two instances each of a synecdoche and metonymy. After writing your short story, underline the examples of synecdoche and circle the examples of metonymy. Then, explain what is being represented by these devices and what the overall effect of these devices may be on the reader: what do synecdoche and metonymy do?
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