Pars pro toto

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Pars pro toto (Latin for 'a part (taken) for the whole'; /ˌpɑːrz pr ˈtt/;[1] Latin: [ˈpars proː ˈtoːtoː]),[2] is a figure of speech where the name of a portion of an object, place, or concept is used or taken to represent 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 it; or synecdoche, which can refer both to pars pro toto and its inverse: Totum pro parte (Latin for 'the whole for a part').

In the context of language, pars pro toto means that something is named after a part or subset of it, or after a limited characteristic, which in itself is not necessarily representative of the whole. For example, "glasses" is a pars pro toto name for something that consists of more than literally just two pieces of glass (the frame, nosebridge, temples, etc. as well as the lenses). Pars pro toto usage is especially common in political geography, with examples including "Russia" or "Russians", referring to the political institution (both historially and contemporary) or its people; "Holland" for the Netherlands; and, particularly in languages other than English, using the translation of "England" in that language to refer to Great Britain or the United Kingdom. Among English-speakers, "Britain" is a common pars pro toto shorthand for the United Kingdom.


An example of a pars pro toto in geography is the use of the capital to refer generally to the country such as Washington for the United States, Beijing for China, Moscow for Russia, Berlin for Germany, Tokyo for Japan, Paris for France, London for the United Kingdom, Rome for Italy, etc. When the capital is used to refer specifically to the country's government, the figure of speech is a metonymy rather than a pars pro toto.

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

Other examples[edit]

Individual body parts are often colloquially used to refer to an entire body; examples include:

  • "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")
  • "hand" for a person, usually a woman, being considered as a marital partner, as in the phrase "he asked her father for her hand in marriage"[citation needed]
  • "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")
  • "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")
  • "brain" for intelligence or a smart person, as in "the class brain" or "the brains of the operation" or "where's your brain"
  • "back" or "neck", used to mean a person's whole self or physical being or physical life, as in the sayings "to have someone's back" or "save one's neck"
  • "butt" or "ass", used to indicate a person's entire self or body ("get your butt on a plane" or "the boss fired my ass")

The names of affiliates or subdivisions of large corporations are sometimes used to refer to the entire corporation:

Regional demonyms are sometimes used to refer to a whole people or ethnic group:

  • "Yankee" is used, especially outside of the United States, to refer to Americans in general (despite the original meaning of the word being of a inhabitant of New England)

Other examples include an individual object being used to refer to a larger object or group of which it is a part:

  • "bread" for food in general, as in "my job puts bread in my children's mouths"
  • "pork bellies" for commodities to be traded
  • "head" for counting individual farm animals (e.g. "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, "wheels" for automobile, "jet" for jet(-propelled) airplane, "sail" for sailing ship
  • "gun", used to refer to the shooter as well as his firearm (e.g., "he was a hired gun")
  • "body" for a whole person, as in the words, "somebody", "anybody", "everybody", "nobody" or "a body", as in "can't a body have some peace and quiet?"
  • "soul", meaning a whole person, as "don't tell a soul"

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "pars pro toto". Pars pro toto - definition of pars pro toto in English | Oxford Dictionaries. Oxford Living Dictionaries: English. Archived from the original on September 26, 2016. Retrieved 2018-01-19.
  2. ^ "pars pro toto". Merriam-Webster. 2012-08-31. Retrieved 2014-02-03.