Pars pro toto

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Pars pro toto, Latin for "a part (taken) for the whole",[1] is a figure of speech where the name of a portion of an object, place, or concept represents its entirety. It is distinct from a merism, which is a reference to a whole by an enumeration of parts; metonymy, where an object, place, or concept is called by something or some place associated with the object, place, or concept; or synecdoche, which can refer both to this and its inverse of the whole representing a part.

In the context of language, pars pro toto means that something is named after a part of it, or after a limited characteristic, in itself not necessarily representative for the whole. For example, "glasses" is a pars pro toto name for something that consists of more than just two pieces of glass. Pars pro toto is a common device in iconography, where a particular icon can stand for a complete set of characteristics. James George Frazer used "pars pro toto" to explain his concept of contagious magic. Examples of common pars pro toto usage in political geography include "Russia" or "Russians", for the entire former Russian Empire or former Soviet Union or its people, Taiwan or Taipei ("Chinese Taipei") for Republic of China, Holland for the Netherlands, and, particularly in languages other than English, using the translation of "England" in that language for "United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland". Among English-speakers "Great Britain" is a common pars pro toto shorthand for the entire United Kingdom. Switzerland's name (in German Schweiz) comes from its central Canton of Schwyz.

The inverse of a pars pro toto is a totum pro parte, in which the whole is used to describe a part, such as widespread use of "America" (which originally named the entire western hemisphere to place it geographically, with alliteration, alongside Asia, Africa, "Europa," and ultimately Arctica, Antarctica and Australia) in place of "United States of America", "United States" or "USA".[2] The term synecdoche is used for both, as well as similar metaphors, though in Greek it literally means "simultaneous understanding".

Pars pro toto (and totum pro parte) can be imprecise, controversial or even offensive. In the UK, for instance, substituting "Great Britain" or using the terms "British" or "English" for countries or provinces (that choice of terms is a point of contention all its own) which are neither British nor English can be a hot button issue and divide along sectarian lines, from a grand political perspective down to an individual level of personal preference of how one wishes to self-identify. In Northern Ireland especially, many Unionists may wish to be referred to as British or even English and may prefer to call the region Ulster, whereas Irish Republicans are not offended by the "Irish" identifier but may well take umbrage to being called English or referring to an incomplete Ulster or declare it part of Britain when referring to the province to emphasize its subjugation and divided nature.[3]


Certain place names are sometimes used to denote an area greater than that warranted by their strict meaning:

Other examples[edit]

  • "ass" or "butt" for a person's entire self or body (for example, "they fired my butt yesterday" or "get your ass in here")
    • similarly, "skin" or "hide" ("save your skin" or "skin in the game" or "the teacher will have my hide"), "mouth" ("mouth to feed"), "head" ("head count"), "face" ("famous faces"), "hand" ("all hands on deck"), "eyeballs" (television audience), "guts" (to "hate someone's guts"), "back" used to mean the entire human body in relation to clothing ("shirt off my back"), or "back" or "neck" used to mean a person's entire self in relation to being bothered ("get off my back" or "we'll have the police on our necks")
  • "body" for a person (for example, "the beach was "crowded with bodies" or a "warm body" or "what's a body to do", or the words "somebody," "anybody," "everybody," "nobody")
    • similarly, "soul" for a person, (for example, "the poor soul" or "don't tell a soul.")
  • using slang words for genitalia to indicate that particular gender, especially in terms of a sexual partner.
  • "hand" for a person, usually a woman, being considered as a marital partner, used in the phrases "hand in marriage" or "he asked her father for her hand."
  • "Pork bellies" for commodities to be traded
  • "hand" for applause, as in "let's have a great big hand for Mr. David Bowie"
  • "bread" for livelihood/sustenance/a living, as in "earn your daily bread"
  • "hand" for help, such as "lend a hand" or "give me a hand"
  • "head" for individual farm animal, such as "twelve head of cattle" for "twelve cows, bulls, etc."
  • "Big Ben" for Elizabeth Tower
  • "motor" for automobile, as in the corporation General Motors or the word "Motors" used in the name of a car dealership
    • similarly, "jet" for jet(-propelled) airplane, "sail" for sailing ship, "wheels" for automobile
  • In the context of shooting, the term "gun" refers to the shooter as well as his firearm.
  • Certain traffic signs use a visual metaphor, such as the pentagonal outline of a conventional one-room schoolhouse to indicate that nearby there is a school.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "pars pro toto - Definition from the Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary". 2012-08-31. Retrieved 2014-02-03. 
  2. ^ Blair Arts Ltd. "Online Dictionary of Language Terminology (ODLT) s.v. totum pro parte". ODLT. Retrieved 2014-02-03. 
  3. ^ Nicholas Mansergh, Diana Mansergh (1997). Nationalism and Independence. Cork University Press. ISBN 978-1-85918-105-8. Retrieved 2014-08-15.