Figures of Speech - Metonymy and Synecdoche

Figures of Speech - Metonymy and Synecdoche
Figures of speech can often be frustrating to learn, not beccause they are so complex, but because they are so common that we barely give them a thought. Where they become crucial to know is within the realm of writing and poetry, where they are tools that can be employed for deliberate effect. It's important to not overthink the concept, but to simply realize that we employ figures of speech in every day language, so the concept is easy enough to follow - memorizing which term means what is the only real hurdle to overcome.

Metonymy and synecdoche then are two figures of speech which dwell within the realm of rhetoric. They are often misunderstood and confused and misleadingly used interchangeably - where synecdoche can be understood to be a form of metonymy, the converse is not true.

In today's column, we shall attempt to correct the misunderstandings of each, and underscore the relationship between the two.


Synecdoche (si'-nek-doh-kee) is a specific term employed when you use a part of the thing to mean the whole thing itself.

"All hands on deck", as example, where 'hands' represent the men attached to them. No one, after all, assumes the captain to mean that they should literally cut their hands off and toss them on deck.

"Get your butt over here", is another well known, albeit slightly gauche, form of synecdoche. Note that literal usage of figures of speech such as synecdoche and metonymy are often employed heavily for comedic impact. Think 'Monty Python', as example.

When you talk about the "Heads of State," you are using synecdoche. If, however, you were to grumble over the "Head of America", you are using synecdoche and metonymy.

Why, you ask?


Metonymy is similar to synecdoche, but employs the use of something even more loosely associated with the thing that it is intended to represent.

"The Oval Office today reports.." where the Oval Office is intended to represent the President of the United States. Obviously, walls do not truly speak (although we sometimes wish that they could, and especially those walls). When the press or an individual speaks of the Oval Office, they generally mean the powers that it represents and the authority of the President.

Confusing? Here's the easy way out. The difference between metonymy and synecdoche is that in metonymy, the term you are using is linked to the thing that you mean, but is not directly a part of it. A hand, as used in the above example 'all hands on deck' represents the body that it is attached to, and thus not metonymy but synecdoche.

In the end, synecdoche - part equals whole. Metonyny - thing equals concept. Now, test yourself with the following tasty examples below:

1. Sweden today reports a dire shortage of lutefisk.
2. When I am done with this article, I plan to hit the bottle.
3. Bow to my flourishing, dubious crown.
4. There are over fifty head of cattle in that strange and wild herd.

(1-Metonymy, where 'Sweden' is representative of the Powers purporting;
2-Synecdoche, where 'bottle' is a directly the container of the wine;
3-Metonymy, where my 'crown' represent the inherent power within;
4-Synecdoche, where 'head' is representative of the entire herd.)

As a final note, you should keep in mind that there are certain theories within literature that purport that all written language is metonymy, as a word can only ever be representative by idea of the thing it is intended to portray. Perhaps a handy thing to table when debating with your literary fleet (metonymy) and finding yourself unable to remember the difference.

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