Synecdoche Definition

Synecdoche is a literary device in which a part of something represents the whole or it may use a whole to represent a part.

Synecdoche may also use larger groups to refer to smaller groups or vice versa. It may also call a thing by the name of the material it is made of or it may refer to a thing in a container or packing by the name of that container or packing.

Difference between Synecdoche and Metonymy

Synecdoche examples are often misidentified as metonymy (another literary device). Both may resemble each other to some extent but they are not the same. Synecdoche refers to the whole of a thing by the name of any one of its parts. For example, calling a car “wheels” is a synecdoche because a part of a car “wheels” stands for the whole car. However, in metonymy, the word we use to describe another thing is closely linked to that particular thing, but is not necessarily a part of it. For example, “crown” that refers to power or authority is a metonymy used to replace the word “king” or “queen”.

Synecdoche Examples from Everyday Life

It is very common to refer to a thing by the name of its parts. Let us look at some of the examples of synecdoche that we can hear from casual conversations:

  • The word “bread” refers to food or money as in “Writing is my bread and butter” or “sole breadwinner”.
  • The phrase “gray beard” refers to an old man.
  • The word “sails” refers to a whole ship.
  • The word “suits” refers to businessmen.
  • The word “boots” usually refers to soldiers.
  • The term “coke” is a common synecdoche for all carbonated drinks.
  • “Pentagon” is a synecdoche when it refers to a few decision makers.
  • The word “glasses” refers to spectacles.
  • “Coppers” often refers to coins.

Examples of Synecdoche in Literature

Example #1

Coleridge employs synecdoche in his poem The Rime of the Ancient Mariner:

“The western wave was all a-flame.
The day was well was nigh done!
Almost upon the western wave
Rested the broad bright Sun”

The “western wave” is a synecdoche as it refers to the sea by the name of one of its parts i.e. wave.

Example #2

Look at the use of synecdoche in the lines taken from Shakespeare’s Sonnet 116:

“O no! It is an ever-fixed mark
That looks on tempests and is never shaken.”

The phrase “ever-fixed mark” refers to a lighthouse.

Example #3

Look how Shelly uses synecdoche in his poem Ozymandias:

“Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them.”

“The hand” in the above lines refers to the sculptor who carved the “lifeless things” into a grand statue.

Example #4

Observe the use of synecdoche in the following lines from The Secret Sharer by Joseph Conrad:

“At midnight I went on deck, and to my mate’s great surprise put the ship round on the other tack. His terrible whiskers flitted round me in silent criticism.”

The word “whiskers” mentioned in the above lines refers to the whole face of the narrator’s mate.

Example #5

Jonathan Swift in The Description of the Morning uses synecdoche:

“Prepar’d to scrub the entry and the stairs.
The youth with broomy stumps began to trace.”

In the above lines the phrase “broomy stumps” refers to the whole broom.

Example #6

Note the use of synecdoche in The Lady or the Tiger? by Frank R. Stockton:

“His eye met hers as she sat there paler and whiter than anyone in the vast ocean of anxious faces about her.”

“Faces” refers to people (not just their faces).

Function of Synecdoche

Literary symbolism is developed by the writers who employ synecdoche in their literary works. By using synecdoche, the writers give otherwise common ideas and objects deeper meanings and thus draw readers’ attention.

Furthermore, the use of synecdoche helps writers to achieve brevity. For instance, saying “Soldiers were equipped with steel” is more concise than saying “The soldiers were equipped with swords, knives, daggers, arrows etc.”

Like any other literary device, synecdoche when used appropriately adds a distinct color to words making them appear vivid. To insert this “life” factor to literary works, writers describe simple ordinary things creatively with the aid of this literary device.