A synecdoche (pronounced si-nek-duh-kee) is a member of the figurative language family. It’s an odd word for what is simply using part of a whole to represent the whole. If you said “check out my new wheels,” “wheels” is an example of synecdoche, used to refer to a “car.” A part of a car, in this example, represents the whole of the car.
Figurative language comes in many shapes and sizes. As well as synecdoche, you have metaphors, similes, personification, and more. Each element transforms everyday language into something more interesting or thought-provoking. Because it colors ordinary rhetoric, synecdoche is a favorite in poetry and music lyrics.
Before we take a walk down this multi-colored lane, let’s clear the air regarding the confusion between synecdoche and metonymy.
It’s easy to confuse synecdoche and metonymy because they both use a word or phrase to represent something else (some even consider synecdoche a type of metonymy). While a synecdoche takes an element of a word or phrase and uses it to refer to the whole, a metonymy replaces the word or phrase entirely with a related concept. In truth, some synecdoche are a form of metonymy.
Let’s use our example relating to the car again. As we saw, “wheels” was a synecdoche for “car.” Another common word for car is “ride.” For example, “Let’s take my new ride out for a spin.” Notice how car has been entirely replaced by another word. You ride in a car, so it’s a related word, but it’s not an element of a car.
There are several different forms of synecdoche. The important thing to keep in mind is that you’re always going to be dealing with parts and wholes. To make sure you’re fully aware of each angle, let’s examine the most popular varieties of synecdoche.
A synecdoche may use part of something to represent the whole. It’s actually very common in the English language for part of something reference the whole.
In the same way a synecdoche can use a part to represent a whole, it can also use the whole to represent a part. In this respect, there is some blurring of the lines between synecdoche and metonymy.
A synecdoche may use a word or phrase as a class to express more or less than the word or phrase actually means.
The material used to make something - or what was used in the past - is often used to represent the entire object.
In truth, synecdoche and metonymy have a lot in common and even grammarians can’t always agree on whether an expression is synecdoche or metonymy. Remember that synecdoche refers to parts and wholes of a thing, metonymy to a related term. The intent of synecdoche is to deviate from a literal term in order to spice up everyday language. All types of figurative language stand to create a bright, new image in the minds of readers.
Take this quote from Toni Morrison’s Beloved:
“This is flesh I’m talking about here. Flesh that needs to be loved. Feet that need to rest and to dance; backs that need support; shoulders that need arms, strong arms I’m telling you.”
By referring to the individual parts of the the body as having their own needs, she adds more value to the whole.
So, the next time you want to write about the sun shining on the ocean, think about the individual parts, maybe the bright rays catching the waves, and you’ll soon enter into the ranks of synecdoche superiority.