Synecdoche (sih-NECK-duh-key) is a figure of speech where part of something stands in for the whole thing (like using wheels to refer to a car) or, less frequently, when a whole thing stands in for part of it (society used to reference high society).
The word synecdoche first appeared in English in the late 15th century from the Medieval Latin synodoche, which derived from the Greek synekdokhe, meaning “the putting of a whole for a part; an understanding one with another.”
Types of Synecdoche
There are two broad categories of synecdoche: macrocosm and microcosm.
This occurs when a large entity is used to refer to a smaller part of itself. Macrocosm synecdoche commonly refers to political entities. Consider these examples:
- “The White House today announced new information about the nation’s job losses.”
- “Buckingham Palace released a statement.”
The entire staff and everyone occupying those buildings didn’t give these statements nor were they involved in the decision-making process for the announcements. However, the larger entity of the White House or Buckingham Palace stand in for the smaller number of people there who were involved.
This happens when a smaller part of an entity signifies the whole thing. For example, if you say you’ll have “many mouths to feed” at your Thanksgiving dinner, you’re using microcosm synecdoche to indicate you will have a lot of guests; you don’t mean you’re feeding a group of disembodied mouths! Similarly, if an army general says he has “boots on the ground,” he’s referring to soldiers, who are wearing boots, rather than rows of empty boots.
Why Writers Use Synecdoche
Writers use synecdoche for the same reasons people use it in everyday speech: it keeps language interesting and engaging.
Letting the part stand in for the whole or vice versa can be a convenient shorthand for a writer to convey ideas in an elegant way. Some types of synecdoche, such as saying hired hands instead of workers, also create imagery that can strengthen a written work.
Synecdoche vs. Metonymy
People often confuse synecdoche with metonymy. Although both these figures of speech involve relationships where something stands in for something else, the relationship between the two things differs between the terms.
In synecdoche, the entity standing in for the other must either be one part or the entirety of the thing being replaced. Metonymy, on the other hand, involves the use of associated ideas. Consider the famous adage “The pen is mightier than the sword,” which includes two instances of metonymy: the pen symbolizes the idea of diplomacy and the sword represents the idea of warfare.
Synecdoche Outside of Literature
Although synecdoche may seem like a difficult concept, you encounter it every day. For example, when a baseball fan announces that “Detroit slaughtered New York yesterday,” you know they don’t mean that the entire city of Detroit murdered all of New York City. Instead, they’re saying that the Detroit Tigers beat the New York Yankees in a game. Or if a newspaper reports that the police are investigating a crime, readers understand that only a few officers, rather than the entire police force, are on the case.
You may also remember the 2008 movie Synecdoche, New York, which starred Philip Seymour Hoffman as an theater director who pours all his grant money into constructing a recreated version of ordinary life inside a gigantic warehouse. As the years pass and the director’s ailing body fails him, the warehouse’s microcosmic world grows more and more elaborate, ultimately blurring the lines between the small reenactments of life that occur inside the theater and the larger world outside.
Examples of Synecdoche in Literature
1. Christopher Marlowe, Doctor Faustus
In Scene XIII, at Faustus’s request, the devil Mephistophilis conjures up the shade of Helen of Troy. As he sees her, Faustus asks:
Was this the face that launched a thousand ships
And burned the topless towers of Ilium?
Faustus’s speech contains three moments of synecdoche. Face stands in for all of Helen’s personage and beauty; a thousand ships represents all of Greece’s military power; and towers of Ilium refers to the entire city of Troy and its culture, which the victorious Greeks destroyed.
2. Jillian Weise, “Elegy for Zahra Baker”
In the final poem in Weise’s second book, The Book of Goodbyes, she threads together the story of a murder victim with the speaker’s own experience as a disabled woman. The speaker, who has had a leg amputated for unspecified medical reasons, returns frequently to images of legs:
When I am in front of twenty-four legs in a classroom.
This use of synecdoche both conveys her feelings of alienation as she teaches her seminar of 12 students and returns to the recurring motif of legs.
3. Jaquira Díaz, Ordinary Girls
In section two of Díaz’s memoir about coming of age in Puerto Rico and Miami Beach, she recounts being released from a Miami police station after yet another arrest for brawling with other girls. One of the older cops, Ms. Olga, gives Díaz back her property and tells her not to come back. After Díaz promises she won’t, Ms. Olga says:
I mean it. I don’t want to see your face ‘round here again.
When Ms. Olga says face, she really means that doesn’t want to see any part of Díaz again—she hopes this is the last time Díaz is ever arrested.
Further Resources on Synecdoche
Power Poetry features Eavan Boland and Samuel Taylor Coleridge in their write up of synecdoche.
For an in-depth exploration of synecdoche, read Dr. Siham Mohammed Hasan Al-Kawwaz’s article “Vindicating Synecdoche: A Study in Rhetoric and Cognitive Semantics.”
If you’re interested by the movie Synecdoche, New York, Damon Wise analyzed its complex twists and turns for The Guardian.