Definition of Synecdoche

Synecdoche is a figure of speech in which a word or phrase that refers to a part of something is substituted to stand in for the whole, or vice versa. For example, the phrase “all hands on deck” is a demand for all of the crew to help, yet the word “hands”—just a part of the crew—stands in for the whole crew.

Synecdoche is a subset of metonymy. We explore the similarities and differences between the two in more detail below. Synecdoche and metonymy are also considered forms of metaphor in that all three literary devices involve a substitution of one term for another that requires a conceptual link. Synecdoche can sometimes be described as a form of personification in the cases when it substitutes a human element for a non-human organization, such as referring to a weapon falling into “the wrong hands.” In this case, the human element of “hands” stands in for an opposing group.

The word synecdoche comes from the Ancient Greek word synekdoche, which means “simultaneous understanding.”

Difference Between Synecdoche and Metonymy

The definition of synecdoche requires the substituted term to be either a part of the whole or a whole standing in for a part. Metonymy, on the other hand, can refer to the substitution of a term that is connected in any way to the original concept. For example, using “the crown” to refer to a member of royalty is metonymy because the concept of the crown is related to royalty. However, a crown is neither part of the royal person, nor is the royal person part of the crown.

Common Examples of Synecdoche

There are many common expressions that are examples of synecdoche. Here is a list of some of these examples:

  • Boots on the ground—refers to soldiers
  • New wheels—refers to a new car
  • Ask for her hand—refers to asking a woman to marry
  • Suits—can refer to businesspeople
  • Plastic—can refer to credit cards
  • The White House—can refer to statements made by individuals within the United States government

Significance of Synecdoche in Literature

Some literary theorists have posited that synecdoche is not merely ornamental, but instead one of the chief ways to describe and discover truths via literature. Along with metonymy, metaphor, and irony, synecdoche displays and creates new connections in the way that humans understand concepts. Whether or not authors use synecdoche intentionally, any connection between previously unassociated concepts creates new cognitive links. By exploring the usage of synecdoche in literature, we are able to better understand the human mind.

Examples of Synecdoche in Literature

Example #1

GHOST: Now, Hamlet, hear.
‘Tis given out that, sleeping in my orchard,
A serpent stung me. So the whole ear of Denmark
Is by a forgèd process of my death
Rankly abused. But know, thou noble youth,
The serpent that did sting thy father’s life
Now wears his crown.

(Hamlet by William Shakespeare)

In this excerpt from Shakespeare’s tragedy Hamlet, the ghost of Hamlet’s father implies that he was killed by Claudius instead of being stung by a snake. The synecdoche example in this excerpt is the usage of the word “ear.” The ghost refers to “the whole ear of Denmark.” This means that the whole population of Denmark has heard a particular story about his death. This is not the only time that Shakespeare used “ear” to refer to a greater group of people. Mark Antony’s famous quote from Julius Caesar also uses this synecdoche: “Friends, countrymen, lend me your ears.”

Example #2

I had not intended to love him; the reader knows I had wrought hard to extirpate from my soul the germs of love there detected; and now, at the first renewed view of him, they spontaneously arrived, green and strong! He made me love him without looking at me.

(Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë)

In this excerpt from Charlotte Brontë’s novel Jane Eyre, Jane talks about “the germs of love.” The germs here refer to the early stages of love, and Brontë continues this metaphorical usage saying that the germs return “green and strong.”

Example #3

“About Gatsby! No, I haven’t. I said I’d been making a small investigation of his past.”
“And you found he was an Oxford man,” said Jordan helpfully.
“An Oxford man!” He was incredulous. “Like hell he is! He wears a pink suit.”
“Nevertheless he’s an Oxford man.”
“Oxford, New Mexico,” snorted Tom contemptuously, “or something like that.”

(The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald)

In this excerpt from The Great Gatsby, Fitzgerald uses the synecdoche of being an “Oxford man.” An Oxford man is a man who has attended the legendary English university. Oxford stands in for much meaning, including a certain level of class, wealth, and learning that is necessary to be an elite member of society. The character Tom Buchanan is suspicious that Jay Gatsby could possibly be an “Oxford man,” thinking him to not contain these qualities.

Example #4

The Eyes around – had wrung them dry –
And Breaths were gathering firm
For that last Onset – when the King
Be witnessed – in the Room –

(“I heard a Fly buzz – when I died –” by Emily Dickinson)

In this famous short poem by Emily Dickinson, the second stanza contains an example of synecdoche. The speaker in the poem is at the point of death, and in the second stanza makes note of “The Eyes around.” The eyes in this case refer to the audience that has gathered by the speaker’s deathbed. The speaker doesn’t refer to the people themselves, but instead to their eyes—which are now dry from having exhausted their tears—and breaths.

Example #5

This is flesh I’m talking about here. Flesh that needs to be loved. Feet that need to rest and to dance; backs that need support; shoulders that need arms, strong arms I’m telling you.

(Beloved by Toni Morrison)

These lines from Toni Morrison’s Beloved come from a sermon by the character Baby Suggs. In it, Baby Suggs is preaching to her people about the value of their lives. She does so by referring to the parts of the their bodies as having needs of their own. This affirms the importance of the community to which she is preaching and the individuals that make it up. Baby Suggs refers to the needs of the “flesh,” “feet,” “backs,” and “shoulders.” Though it may seem that breaking the people down into their parts would dehumanize them, instead the sermon shows just how human they are. Their bodies are not just for work, but instead for love, rest, dance, and support.

Test Your Knowledge of Synecdoche

1. Choose the best synecdoche definition from the following statements:
A. A substitution of one term for another.
B. A substitution of one related term for another.
C. A substitution of a term that is part of a whole for the whole, or vice versa.
[spoiler title=”Answer to Question #1″]
Answer: C is the correct answer. While A and B are also true, they are not specific enough. A is more similar to the definition of metaphor, while B is similar to the definition of metonymy.[/spoiler]

2. Is the following excerpt from Shakespeare’s Hamlet an example of synecdoche or of metonymy?

Let not the royal bed of Denmark be
A couch for luxury and damnèd incest.

A. Metonymy
B. Synecdoche
C. Both
D. Neither
[spoiler title=”Answer to Question #2″]
Answer: Technically, this is only an example of metonymy, so A is correct. This is because the “royal bed” refers to the King and Queen. The “bed” is neither part of the couple, nor is the couple part of the bed. Yet the substitution makes sense because it is related to the original concept of royalty.[/spoiler]

3. Consider the following excerpt from The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald:

I graduated from New Haven in 1915, just a quarter of a century after my father, and a little later I participated in that delayed Teutonic migration known as the Great War. I enjoyed the counter-raid so thoroughly that I came back restless. Instead of being the warm centre of the world, the Middle West now seemed like the ragged edge of the universe—so I decided to go East and learn the bond business.

Which of the following terms acts as an example of synecdoche for the Great War?
A. Delayed Teutonic migration
B. Counter-raid
C. Bond business
[spoiler title=”Answer to Question #3″]
Answer: B is the correct answer. The phrase “delayed Teutonic migration” does refer to the war but is neither part of the war nor is the war part of it, so it is not an example of synecdoche. Meanwhile the term “counter-raid” acts as one small part of the war but stands in for the whole.[/spoiler]