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Synecdoche (pron.: //, si-NEK-də-kee; from Greek synekdoche (συνεκδοχή), meaning "simultaneous understanding") is a figure of speech in which a term for a part of something is used to refer to the whole of something, or vice-versa. For example, referring to a congregation as the church or the police as the law.
Similar figures of speech 
Synecdoche is closely related to metonymy (the figure of speech in which a term denoting one thing is used to refer to a related thing); indeed, synecdoche is sometimes considered a subclass of metonymy. It is more distantly related to other figures of speech, such as metaphor.
More rigorously, metonymy and synecdoche may be considered as sub-species of metaphor, intending metaphor as a type of conceptual substitution (as Quintilian does in Institutio oratoria Book VIII). In Lanham's Handlist of Rhetorical Terms, the three terms have somewhat restrictive definitions, arguably in tune with a certain interpretation of their etymologies from Greek:
- metaphor: changing a word from its literal meaning to one not properly applicable but analogous to it; assertion of identity rather than, as with simile, likeness.
- metonymy: substitution of cause for effect, proper name for one of its qualities, etc.
The word "synecdoche" is derived from the Greek word συνεκδοχή, from the prepositions συν- + εκ- and the verb δέχομαι (= "I accept"), originally meaning accepting a part as responsible for the whole, or vice versa.
Synecdoche can be used to emphasize an important aspect of a fictional character; for example, the X-Files character the Smoking Man. Sonnets and other forms of love poetry frequently use synecdoches to characterize the beloved in terms of individual body parts rather than a coherent whole. This practice is especially common in the Petrarchan sonnet, where the idealised beloved is often described part by part, from head to toe.
- A part referring to the whole
- Referring to people according to a single characteristic: "the gray beard" representing an older man or "the long hair" representing a hippie. This leads to bahuvrihi compounds.
- Describing a complete vehicle as "wheels"
- Referring to people by a particular body part. For example, "head count", "counting noses", or "all hands on deck!"
- Describing a small portable radio as a "transistor" (though that may simply be an abbreviation for "transistor radio"), or a CRT-based television receiver as "the tube"
- Historical: The Holy Roman Empire was commonly referred to as Germany, due to the domination of it by German leaders and that most of it was centred upon territory considered to be Germany. The Kingdom of Sardinia in the 19th century was commonly referred to as Savoy because its ruling house was from Savoy. Austria-Hungary was commonly referred to as Austria. The Soviet Union was commonly referred to by its largest and most well-known member, Russia. The Federal Republic of Yugoslavia later named Serbia and Montenegro was commonly referred to by the name of its largest constituent republic, Serbia.
- Use of the name Great Britain (the geographical name of the main island) to mean the entire United Kingdom.
- Use of Holland, a region of the Netherlands, to refer to the entire country.
- Referring to a virtual desktop infrastructure (VDI) system image as a "thin client".
- Using CPU to refer to the enclosure that houses all the core components of a home desktop computer.
In Wordsworth's "We Are Seven", the speaker says, "Your limbs they are alive" (l. 34). "Limbs" represent the entire body, so the narrator is trying to explain to the little girl that she is alive and breathing, unlike her two dead siblings.
In Coleridge's "Frost at Midnight", the speaker says "…or the redbreast sit and sing/ Betwixt the tufts of snow…" (l. 67-8). This phrase symbolizes the coming of spring, as robins are referred to as harbingers of spring.
- A general class name used to denote a specific member of that or an associated class
- "the good book", or "The Book" for the Bible ("Bible" itself comes from the Greek for "book")
- "truck" for any four-wheel drive vehicle (as well as long-haul trailers, etc.)
- "He's good people". (Here, the word "people" is used to denote a specific instance of people, i.e., a person. So the sentence would be interpreted as "He's a good person".)
- A specific class name used to refer to a general set of associated things
- "John Hancock" for the signature of any person
- a genericized trademark, for example "Coke" for any variety of cola, "Band-Aid" for any variety of adhesive bandage, or "Styrofoam" for any product made of expanded polystyrene.
- "bug" for any kind of insect or arachnid, even if it is not a true bug
- The material that a thing is (actually, historically, or supposedly) made of referring to that thing
- "glasses" for spectacles
- "steel" for a sword
- "strings" for string instruments The strings come in together on the next beat.
- "brass" for brass instruments The brass section needs to tune their instruments.
- "ivories" for a piano The maestro sure knows how to tickle the ivories.
- "tin" for a container made with tin plating
- "willow" for a cricket bat
- "pigskin" for an American or Canadian football
- "wood" for a type of club used in the sport of golf
- "irons" for shackles placed around a prisoner's wrists or ankles to restrict his movement
- "plastic" for a credit card (asking a merchant) Do you take plastic?
- "lead" for bullets (e.g. They pumped him full of lead.)
- "silver" for tableware, cutlery or other dishes that were once made of silver metal
- "rubber" for a condom
- "threads" for clothing Yo, check out my new threads!
- "flint" (the sparking bit in a lighter) for ferrocerium (which is not made of flint)
- "lead" for the graphite core of a pencil
- A container is used to refer to its contents
- "barrel" for a barrel of oil
- "keg" for a keg of beer
- "he drank the cup", to refer to his drinking of the cup's contents
See also 
- Synecdoche - Definition from the Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary
- N. R. Clifton (1983). The Figure on Film. University of Delaware Press. pp. 173–. ISBN 978-0-87413-189-5. Retrieved 19 May 2013.
- Lanham, Richard A (1991). A Handlist of Rhetorical Terms: A Guide for Students of English Literature, Second Edition. Berkeley/Los Angeles/London: California University Press. p. 189. ISBN 0-520-07669-9.
- Stephen Greenblatt et al. The Norton Anthology of English Literature, volume D, 9th edition (Norton, 2012)
Further reading 
- Monateri, Pier Giuseppe (1958). La Sineddoche. Formule e regole nel diritto delle obbligazioni e dei contratti. Milano: Giuffré.
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