Friday, November 23, 2012

What Is A Synecdoche?

According to most linguists, a synecdoche is a a type of metonym.

A very commonly used synecdoche is Holland. Many native English speakers use the word Holland to refer to the Netherlands. However, Holland technically refers to one region of the country, not the entirety of the Netherlands. This type of synecdoche is known as a pars pro toto, which is Latin for "a part for the whole".

Big Ben is a good example of a synecdoche as well. The smug bastards among us will be happy to point out that Big Ben is actually the bell. What most people call Big Ben is no more than the clock tower, its real name being Elizabeth Tower.

That giant bell in the middle is the real Big Ben!

There are several types of synecdoche which we've listed below with our favorite examples.

Pars pro toto - Using part of something to refer to the whole thing.
  • England and Great Britain are often used by foreigners to refer to the United Kingdom. England is a country that's a part of the UK. It is located on the island of Great Britain, along with other UK countries Wales and Scotland. Northern Ireland is also a part of the UK, but is not located on the island of Great Britian. Got it?
  • "All hands on deck!" Workers are valuable to their employers for more than just their hands, surely!

Totum pro parte - This is the opposite of pars pro toto; the whole is used to refer to part of the thing.
  • The Internet is often used to mean the "World Wide Web". The Internet is a system of connected computer networks, while the "World Wide Web" is a network of connected documents that you can access via the Internet, to put it very simply!
  • American technically refers to any person living in the Americas, but almost always refers to things or people from the United States of America when used in English. We imagine this synecdoche came about because United Statian is such an awkward-sounding word. 
  • The verb to drink can mean "to consume a liquid", but it often used in reference to the consumption of a specific type of beverage. If you've ever said "I drank too much last night," we imagine you weren't talking about milk. 
This guy probably wasn't drinking water last night.

A general class name used to mean a specific member of that class
  • Calling the Bible "the good book" is a prime example... there are plenty of other good books around! 

A specific class name used to refer to a general class of things
  • There are many examples of trademarked names being used to refer to a generic product. Coke is used around the world to refer to any type of cola. When American children scrape their knees, they ask their parents for a Band-Aid, which is a brand of adhesive bandage.
  • People often call any kind of insect or arachnid a bug, though it technically only refers to a specific order of insects that have a proboscis to suck in liquids!
  • In the United States, people occasionally will say they require your John Hancock on a document. What they're asking for is your signature. John Hancock was likely the first one to sign the Declaration of Independence, and he signed it with flair.
Somebody spent a lot of time practicing his John Hancock...

The material something is made of used to refer to the thing
  • Glasses were originally called "spectacles". That's not because they're spectacular!
  • If you've ever heard someone talk about "tickling the ivories", they're trying to sound clever while talking about playing the piano. Piano keys used to be made of ivory, but now they're almost always plastic.
  • Americans often refer to their cutlery as silverware, although it's mostly made of stainless steel nowadays.
  • A hipster might say "Check out my new threads!" when bragging about their new clothing.
If they show you these threads, they're
clearly not the best conversationalist.

  • Rubber is a particularly fun synecdoche. In American English it's a slang term for a condom, but in British English it is the object used to remove pencil markings on paper (an "eraser" to Americans). This can lead to awkward laughter from an American sharing a classroom with a Brit.

A container is used to refer to its contents
  • In the U.S., you often hear news stories that start with "Today, The White House announced plans to...". Obviously, the building itself hasn't started talking! It's just a faster way to say things.
  • When someone goes to buy a keg for their party, they're generally purchasing a keg full of beer.

You probably use synecdoches every day without even noticing... now you know!