I. What is Synecdoche?
When the captain of a ship calls, “All hands on deck!” certainly no hands can be seen running across the ship. Rather, the speaker is using synecdoche: allowing a part (hands) to speak for the whole (a crew member in the ship).
A synecdoche (pronounced si-nek-duh-kee) is a figure of speech which allows a part to speak for a whole or for a whole to speak for a part. When using synecdoche, you refer to your car as your “wheels” and a handful of quarters, dimes, and pennies as the “change” needed to pay the meter.
The word synecdoche is derived from the Greek phrases synekdochē and ekdechesthai, meaning “to sense” and “to understand.”
II. Examples of Synecdoche
There are two key types of synecdoche: microcosm and macrocosm.
Microcosm is the phrase for synecdoche in which a smaller part signifies a larger whole.
Macrocosm, on the other hand, is the phrase for synecdoche in which a larger whole signifies a smaller collection of parts.
A boy has been admitted to the hospital. The nurse says, “He’s in good hands.”
The boy is not literally being taken care of by two hands. Rather, he is being taken care of by an entire hospital system, including nurses, assistants, doctors, and many others. This is an example of microcosmic synecdoche, as a part signifies a whole.
The Department of Education announced new plans for the education reform.
In this example, the Department of Education as a whole cannot literally make such an announcement. Rather, an individual or set of individuals puts together the announcement. This is an example of macrocosmic synecdoche, as a whole speaks for a part.
Although microcosms and macrocosms are reversed—parts for wholes versus wholes for parts—both are considered uses of synecdoche, as one related element is being substituted for another element.
III. The Importance of Synecdoche
Synecdoche is important in its wide variety of uses. Rather than listing the members of the White House, a country, or sports team, it allows us brevity. Rather than listing the various aspects of an idea, it captures the essence. Synecdoches allow speakers to emphasize certain parts of a whole, highlighting their importance by substituting them for the whole. They also draw attention to the power of associative and referential thinking, as readers automatically understand that a part can stand for the whole and vice versa.
IV. Examples of Synecdoche in Literature
Synecdoche is a common element in literature from the poet who speaks of his lover in terms of her eyes and lips to the writer who provides an entire town with the mood and personality of an individual.
Consider these excerpts from S. Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” poem:
There will be time, there will be time
To prepare a face to meet the faces that you meet;
There will be time to murder and create,
And time for all the works and days of hands
That lift and drop a question on your plate;
I know the voices dying with a dying fall
Beneath the music from a farther room.
In this poem, Eliot frequently uses microcosmic synecdoche, speaking of relationships with human beings as relationships with their parts, from faces and hands to voices, eyes, and arms. This use of synecdoche serves to highlight the narrator’s inability to form whole human relationships and his resulting insecurities and loneliness. Although he knows their parts, he does not truly know them.
Consider these excerpts from Faulkner’s short story “A Rose for Emily”:
When Miss Emily Grierson died, our whole town went to her funeral.
When the next generation, with its more modern ideas, became mayors and aldermen, this
arrangement created some little dissatisfaction.
Faulkner’s story is characterized by a town full of gossipers, and frequently the narrator speaks in terms of “we.” This macrocosmic use of synecdoche serves to highlight the unity and simplicity of a town or generation’s psyche.
V. Examples of Synecdoche in Pop Culture
Synecdoche is a common element in pop culture that speaks for generations in macrocosmic synecdoche and significant parts of people or places in microcosmic synecdoche.
“Where are the Arms” by Gabriel Kahane
Where are the arms
that armed your love?
And come on, heart
In this song, the speaker searches for “arms,” meaning lovers’ strength and commitment to their love. He then directly speaks to the “heart,” or the most significant element of the lover.
“Our Song” by Taylor Swift
In this example, a love song and a romantic relationship are expressed in instances:
- a slamming screen door
- sneaking out late
- talking real slow
These microcosmic synecdoches highlight the fun of always wanting to be with one’s lover in a budding relationship.
VI. Related Terms
Synecdoche vs. Metonymy
Metonymy and synecdoche are both figures of speech that allow one thing to represent another. The difference between the two is very slight: synecdoche allows a part to stand for a whole, whereas metonymy allows an associated idea to stand for another idea.
Here is an example of metonymy versus synecdoche:
First, imagine a friend has bought a very nice motorcycle. Both metonymy and synecdoche can be used to give a compliment:
Nice ride, man.
This compliment is considered metonymy because one rides a motorcycle. The idea of riding is associated with motorcycles, but it is not part of a motorcycle.
Nice rims, man.
Although this compliment is only one word away from the example of metonymy, it is different. Rims are a part of motorcycle which stand for the whole.
VII. In Closing
Synecdoche both simplifies collections of parts by using the whole and emphasizes certain aspects of the whole by using its most important parts. It can be used for simplification and brevity or poeticism and elaboration.