Ever called a vehicle your ‘wheels’, or wanted to take a ‘headcount’? You’re using synecdoche!
THERE is a common saying: that the whole of something is usually more than the sum of its parts.
This is not always true in the English language. Sometimes, a part of something is so striking, so remarkable, that we use it to refer to it in its entirety. Take, for example, referring to a vehicle as “wheels”, or to a pair of spectacles as “glasses”.
This is synecdoche, a figure of speech used where a term for a part of something is used to refer to its whole, or vice-versa. Ever refer to your clothes as “threads”, or your credit card as “plastic”? That’s right. Synecdoche!
Why do we use synecdoche? Used properly, it can add to the visual imagery of a phrase. Calling someone an old man is well and good, but using the term greybeard really conjures a picture in your mind.
(Thanks to Wikipedia and YourDictionary.com for supplying many of the examples for this article)
Synecdoche is also often used in fiction to emphasise important aspects of a character, for example The Cigarette Smoking Man from The X-Files, Captain Hook from Peter Pan, the Man with Horn-Rimmed Glasses in Heroes and Foxface from The Hunger Games.
Indeed, the most famous example of synecdoche comes from Shakespeare, from Julius Caesar: “Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears!”
In the play, Marc Anthony is not literally asking for his listener’s ears (that’s just disturbing) but instead, uses ears (the part) to refer to the entire act of listening (whole).
The above example also shows that synecdoche is closely related to metonymy, which is a figure of speech where a thing or concept is called by the name of something associated with it. The best example of metonymy is the term “the pen is mightier than the sword”: there, a pen is used to represent words and writing, while a sword stands in for the concept of deeds and action.
Indeed, there usually is little difference between the two terms: the crucial difference is that it is only synecdoche when the name used is actually a part of the thing being described. Again, this can be a very fine line to draw.
Similarly, synecdoche is often used for convenience: the most prominent example of this is when a well known brand name is used to refer to any product in its class. Many people use “Coke” when they just want cola, and use “Tupperware” to refer to any kind of food storage container.
This is usually a double-edged sword for companies.
For one thing, it shows just how much an impact their product has made on society, however, it could also cause them to lose intellectual property rights.
For example, take the case of aspirin, originally a trademarked word by the Bayer Company to refer to their brand of acetylsalicylic acid. Possibly because it was so much easier to say, customers everywhere started using the term to refer to all kinds of acetylsalicylic acid regardless of brand. The word was later ruled as generic by a court, causing Bayer to lose its trademark.
The same thing happened with the terms zipper and heroin, which also started off as specific names.
Synecdoche is also used when the whole of something is used to refer to a part of it.
For example, when we say “Spain won the World Cup”, we mean a team from Spain won the World Cup, in contrast to the entire nation standing on a victory podium, matadors, senoritas, and all!
Another example in a local context can be seen in newspaper headlines like “Putrajaya declares war on gangs”, which uses the whole location of the government to refer to the government itself.
A common use of synecdoche is the use of body parts to refer to people: this is seen in phrases like headcount, the nautical term all hands on deck, and terms like many mouths to feed. Other examples are bread to refer to food in general, sails to refer to ships, lead to refer to bullets, irons for shackles, rubber for a condom, and strings for any kind of string instrument.
Can you think of some other examples of synecdoche?