Definition of Synecdoche

Synecdoche is a figure of speech in which a part of something is used to signify the whole, or vice-versa. In fact, it’s derived from the Greek word synekdoche: “simultaneous meaning.” As a literary device, synecdoche allows for a smaller component of something to stand in for the larger whole, in a rhetorical manner. Synecdoche can work in the opposite direction as well, in which the larger whole stands in for a smaller component of something. Synecdoche is a helpful device for writers to express a word or idea in a different way by using an aspect of that word or idea. This allows for variation of expression and produces an effect for the reader.

For example, a common synecdoche for proposing marriage is to ask for a person’s “hand.” This is a figure of speech in the sense that asking for someone’s hand is for effect, not intended literally. The “hand” in this example of synecdoche is the part that signifies the whole person receiving the marriage proposal, and reflects the symbolic placement of a wedding ring. As a literary device, synecdoche is a means for writers to avoid overusing words or phrases and creating an artistic form of expression.

Common Examples of Synecdoche

Here are some examples of synecdoche that may be found in everyday expression:

  • The White House (signifies the U.S. president or executive branch)
  • Wearing heels (signifies high-heeled shoes)
  • Green thumb (signifies person who is good at gardening)
  • The Pentagon (signifies U.S. military leaders)
  • England (signifies Great Britain)
  • Boots on the ground (signifies soldiers)
  • Paper or plastic (signifies type of shopping bag)
  • Stars and stripes (signifies U.S. flag)
  • Suits (signifies people in business)
  • Wheels (signifies a vehicle)
  • Pearly gates (signifies Heaven)
  • Behind bars (signifies being in jail)
  • Threads (signifies clothing)
  • Tickle the ivories (signifies playing piano keys)
  • Twinkle toes (signifies a dancer)

Examples of Synecdoche as Character Names

Fictional characters often feature synecdoche in their names to indicate an aspect or part of them that signifies their nature as a whole. These names can be meant in a genuine or ironic way. Here are some examples:

  • The Brain (Alan from children’s television series “Arthur”)
  • Fang (Hagrid’s dog from “Harry Potter” series)
  • Red (Ellis Boyd Redding from “The Shawshank Redemption”)
  • Hot Lips (Margaret Houlihan from “M*A*S*H”)
  • Whiskers (cat from “Toy Story”)
  • Spot (dog from “Dick and Jane”)
  • Stickers (nickname for Lightning McQueen in “Cars”)
  • Blackbeard (pirate)
  • Freckles (title character of Gene Stratton-Porter novel)
  • Two-Face (villain in DC Comics)

Famous Examples of Synecdoche

Think you haven’t heard of any famous synecdoche? Here are some well-known and recognizable examples of this figure of speech:

  • All hands on deck
  • Faces in the crowd
  • Kansas City scored the winning touchdown
  • Lend me your ears
  • Keep the change
  • Have a nice day
  • You have my heart
  • Hit the sheets
  • I know those voices
  • Keep your eyes up here

Difference Between Synecdoche and Metonymy

Synecdoche and metonymy are often confused. As literary devices, they are similar but distinct from each other. Synecdoche, as a figure of speech, must indicate a relationship in which a part signifies the whole of an entity. Metonymy is also a figure of speech in which one word is used to replace another. However, in metonymy, the words are closely linked rather than one word being a smaller part of the whole word or idea that it represents.

Here is an illustrative example of the difference between synecdoche and metonymy:

  • I am at the peak of my career.” This is an example of synecdoche. “Peak” is used here to indicate the highest point of the speaker’s career path. The “peak” is a smaller part of the speaker’s job experience as a whole.
  • “I have a mountain of work to do.” This is an example of Metonymy. “Mountain” is used here as a figure of speech that would be related or closely linked to a “pile” of paperwork. Though the word “mountain” is different than “pile,” they are both associated with one another in terms of meaning.

Both synecdoche and metonymy emphasize relationships between words and ideas. They serve to establish connections for readers as a means of developing greater understanding of concepts and expression through language.

Writing Synecdoche

Overall, as a literary device, synecdoche functions as a means of expressing a “whole” entity or idea in a rhetorical way by utilizing a part of it. This is effective for readers in that synecdoche allows them to think of an object or idea in a different way, in terms of the representation of its parts. Therefore, this can enhance the meaning and understanding of an entity for the reader when synecdoche is properly used.

It’s important that writers understand the distinction between the two basic categories of synecdoche:

  • Microcosm: synecdoche in which a smaller part of something stands in to refer to the larger whole. For example, “blue hair” is a figure of speech that refers to an older woman. Therefore, a smaller part of a woman’s body is used to represent her as a whole in terms of age.
  • Macrocosm: synecdoche in which a larger entity is used to refer to a smaller part within it. For example, “Ivy League” is a figure of speech that refers to a group of prestigious colleges in the northeastern United States. Therefore, if someone is called an “Ivy League” student, this indicates that the student attends one of these specific universities.

Here are some ways that writers benefit from incorporating synecdoche into their work:

Create Connections

When writers incorporate synecdoche into their work, it is a useful literary device for creating connections for the reader. For synecdoche to be effective, both as microcosm and macrocosm, the reader must be able to connect the significance of the smaller part to the larger whole. In other words, a writer cannot just choose any part of something and create synecdoche. There must be meaning to the part as it relates to the whole in order for the reader to understand.

Enhance Expression

Synecdoche allows writers to vary and enhance their expression. Such figures of speech can emphasize the way that a part of something represents the whole. Writers can also utilize synecdoche to enhance description and create imagery for the reader. As a result, this literary device allows writers to express ideas in unique ways to create deeper meaning for their readers.

Examples of Synecdoche in Literature

Synecdoche is an effective literary device in terms of substituting part of something as a representation of its whole. Here are some examples of synecdoche and the way it adds to the significance of well-known literary works:

Example 1: The Great Gatsby (F. Scott Fitzgerald)

t was the kind of voice that the ear follows up and down, as if each speech is an arrangement of notes that will never be played again.

In this quote from Fitzgerald’s novel, the narrator, Nick Carraway, is describing the allure of Daisy’s voice. Fitzgerald incorporates synecdoche in Nick’s description with “the ear” that follows the sound of Daisy’s speech. In this case, Nick means the ear in a rhetorical manner, since there isn’t an actual ear that is literally following the “up and down” of the voice.

However, by using this literary device, Fitzgerald conveys to the reader one of the central themes in the novel. The ear signifies the whole person whose attention and focus is captivated by the sound of Daisy’s voice. Daisy holds several characters “captive” in the novel through her charm and beauty. Yet, these characteristics are simply parts of her. The “whole” of Daisy is hidden by the “parts” she reveals on the surface. Therefore, like synecdoche, her character is both represented by her parts and responded to by others through their parts, such as the ear.

Example 2: I heard a Fly buzz–when I died (Emily Dickinson)

I heard a Fly buzz – when I died –
The Stillness in the Room
Was like the Stillness in the Air –
Between the Heaves of Storm –
The Eyes around – had wrung them dry –
And Breaths were gathering firm
For that last Onset – when the King
Be witnessed – in the Room –
Dickinson utilizes synecdoche to begin her second stanza with “The Eyes around.” These eyes signify the mourners at the poet’s deathbed. By describing the mourners as “Eyes,” Dickinson is able to emphasize the imagery of crying and tears, as well as the notion of voyeurism with respect to the poet’s death. This literary device enhances the vision of the scene in the poem for the reader. In addition, it creates a connection between the poet, mourners, and reader such that the end of the poem is impactful. The final line of the poem is “I could not see to see,” underscored by the use of “Eyes” as a figure of speech for all those witnessing the poet’s death: the mourners, the poet herself, and the reader. No matter how many eyes, none of the witnesses are able to actually “see.”

Example 3: Hamlet (William Shakespeare)

‘Tis given out that, sleeping in my orchard,

A serpent stung me; so the whole ear of Denmark

Is by a forged process of my death

Rankly abused: but know, thou noble youth,

The serpent that did sting thy father’s life

Now wears his crown.

In this scene, the Ghost of Hamlet’s father is lamenting his death at the hand of his brother Claudius and the resulting consequences. Shakespeare utilizes synecdoche in his phrase “the whole ear of Denmark” to emphasize the implications of Claudius’s treachery and the impact on the kingdom. Of course, Denmark does not have a “whole ear.” Figuratively, the former King is referring to the lie that people in the kingdom have heard about his death. This is an effective literary device, in that the “ear of Denmark” signifies that the population has collectively heard, and therefore believes, the false story.

In addition, this synecdoche represents a part and the whole Hamlet himself. With his father’s murder, Hamlet is the true king of Denmark, and using his “ear” to listen to the Ghost’s story is a symbolic way of delivering the truth to the kingdom as well.

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