A synecdoche (pronounced si-nek-duh-kee) is a member of the figurative language family. It's an odd word for what is simply using part of a whole to represent the whole. In the phrase, "Check out my new wheels," "wheels" is an example of synecdoche used to refer to a "car." In this example, a part of a car (its wheels) is used to represent the car as a whole. Reviewing a few common synecdoche examples can help clarify the meaning of synecdoche.
Synecdoche is an example of a type of figure of speech. Specifically, it is defined as a figure of speech in which a word or phrase with a literal meaning that refers to a part of something is used figuratively to represent the entirety of that thing. Alternately, synecdoche can also be used in reverse, such as using a word that actually represents the whole of something to refer to only a part of it.
There are several different forms of synecdoche. The important thing to keep in mind is that with synecdoche, you're always going to be dealing with parts and wholes. To make sure you're fully aware of each angle, consider and examine some of the most commonly used varieties of synecdoche.
A synecdoche may use part of something to represent the whole. It's actually very common in the English language for part of something to reference the whole.
- The phrase "hired hands" can be used to refer to workers. (The farmer needed to bring on some hired hands.)
- The word "head" can refer to counting cattle or people. (What's the headcount for next week's party?)
- The word "bread" can be used to represent food. (I'm looking forward to breaking bread with you.)
- The word "wheels" refers to a vehicle. (Let's take my new wheels out for a spin.)
- The word "boots" refers to soldiers. (We need to get boots on the ground to help with the recovery effort.)
- The word "bubbly" refers to champagne, though bubbles are only one aspect of the beverage. (Pour me a glass of bubbly).
In the same way that a synecdoche can use a part to represent a whole, it can also use the whole to represent a part. This involves using a word that denotatively refers to the entirety of something when you're really only talking about a portion of it.
- People often use "the movies" to refer to a single movie at a particular theater. (Do you want to go to the movies this weekend?)
- If "the world" is not treating you well, you're really only referring to certain parts that you've encountered. (I feel like the world is out to get me.)
- The word "police" can be used to represent individual officers versus the entire police force. (The police were at my neighbor's house last night.)
- The word "friends" can be used to refer only to certain individuals rather than everyone a person one considers friends. (I went out to dinner with my friends.)
- When people say they were interviewed by a publication, but they were really interviewed by a specific reporter. (I was interviewed by Forbes.)
- The word "alumni" is used to refer to all of the graduates of a school, but it is also often used to refer to just a few. (The alumni visited campus last week.)
A synecdoche may also use a word or phrase as a class to express more or less than the word or phrase actually means.
- Some people refer to all varieties of carbonated beverages as "Coke," even though it's a specific brand name and flavor. (I'm thirsty; I sure need a Coke.)
- Sometimes we refer to the United States as "America" when the "Americas" actually includes all of North America, South America and Central America. (I live in America.)
- Many people refer to all facial tissues by the brand name "Kleenex," even though there are many other brands. (Does anyone have a Kleenex?)
- "Milk" is commonly used to refer to cow's milk when there are many sources of milk, such as goats' milk or oat milk. (What is this on my cereal? I asked for milk!)
- Many people use the brand name "Band-Aid" to refer to any type of adhesive bandages. (I need a Band-Aid for this cut on my finger.)
- The word "Styrofoam" is generally used to refer to any bit of polystyrene, but it is a brand name. (Why is there so much Styrofoam in this shipping package?)
An interesting form of synecdoche involves using the name of a material commonly or formerly used to make something to describe the object. This is similar to using a part of something to refer to a whole, although in this case, the part is a compound rather than a component.
- All cutlery is commonly referred to as "silverware," though most of it does not contain silver. (Will you bring some plastic silverware to the picnic?)
- People often refer to credit cards and debit cards as "plastic," which is a component used to make them. (Do you have any cash? No, but I have plastic.)
- The word "ivories" is often used to denote piano keys, which is a component that used to be commonly used to make them. (I love to tickle the ivories.)
- When a golfer plays with their "woods" they are referring to their longest golf clubs, which used to be crafted from actual wood. (I'm looking forward to trying out my new woods on the links.)
- Bullets are sometimes referred to as "lead," which is an ingredient still commonly used in making bullets. (The target has been peppered with lead.)
- Good ol' fashioned newspapers are referred to as "papers," which is what they are printed on. (I can't wait to read the funny papers.)
Metonymy is another form of figurative language. It can easily be confused with synecdoche. Both metonymy and synecdoche use a word or phrase to represent something else.
Let's consider the earlier example relating to the car. As previously mentioned, "wheels" is a synecdoche for "car." The word "ride" is an example of metonymy for a car. Why is it metonymy rather than synecdoche? Because the word ride is not part of a car, as is the case with the word wheels.
- A synecdoche takes an element of a word or phrase and uses it to refer to the whole or vice versa.
- A metonymy replaces the word or phrase entirely with a related term that is not literally a part of it.
Consider the following sentence as an example: "Let's take my new ride out for a spin." Notice how the word car has been entirely replaced by another word that is not a part of a car. You ride in a car, so the replacement word is related to a car, but it's not an actual element of a car. That is the difference between synecdoche and metonymy.
In truth, synecdoche and metonymy have a lot in common. Even grammarians can't always agree on whether an expression is an example of synecdoche or metonymy. Some synecdoche examples are considered to be a form of metonymy. Someone who believes this would argue that if something is a part of another, then that thing is, in fact, related to the original item.
Consider this brief quote from Cardinal Richelieu in a play written by Edward Bulwer-Lytton in 1839.
"The pen is mightier than the sword."
Does this phrase represent metonymy or synecdoche?
- The word sword is used to represent fighting, so it is clearly an example of metonymy.
- The word pen is used to represent writing. Some would say that this is an example of metonymy, as the pen represents writing. Others would argue that the pen is an example of synecdoche because using a pen is part of the act of writing.
Ultimately, does it really matter if "pen" is synecdoche or metonymy? The concepts are closely related examples of figurative language. What ultimately matters is that all types of figurative language stand to create a bright, new image in the minds of readers.
Figurative language comes in many shapes and sizes. Now that you're familiar with synecdoche examples and know how to differentiate synecdoche from metonymy, consider exploring more examples of figurative language. Consider starting with metaphors and similes because they are used so often in everyday language. From there, turn your attention to examples of personification. Each element transforms everyday language into something more interesting or thought-provoking. Because it colors ordinary rhetoric, synecdoche is a favorite in poetry and music lyrics.