Synecdoche is a figure of speech in which a “part” of something is used to represent its “whole.”
With a synecdoche, one word is used to replace a longer phrase with the same meaning. It can also refer to the reverse, in which a “whole” is used to replace a “part,” although this is far less common. This figure of speech has been used throughout a wide variety of genres and styles of writing. It can be a part of colloquialisms, idioms, and various slang terms. This means that it’s easily used in everyday conversations as well as in more formal writing. One of the most commonly cited examples of synecdoche is the phrase “All hands on deck” in which “hands” stands in for the people on a ship.
Definition and Explanation of Synecdoche
A synecdoche occurs when one part of something is used instead of its whole. This might refer to an object being described through its materials, a container and what it holds, (for example, “I’m having a glass” rather than “I’m having a drink”) and the items in a category. The word originates from the Greek phrases “synekdochē” meaning “to sense” and “ekdechesthai” meaning “to understand.”
Types of Synecdoche
- Microcosm: a smaller part represents a larger whole. For example, referring to one’s car as their “wheels.”
- Macrocosm: a larger whole represents a smaller part or parts. For example, refer to “the government’s plans” when the plans were really created by a smaller group of people.
Examples of Synecdoche
- “You have my heart”
- “Faces in the crowd”
- “Lend me your ears”
- “Keep your eyes up here”
- “Pearly gates”
- “The Pentagon”
- “Boots on the ground”
- “Stars and stripes”
- “Paper or plastic”
Examples of Synecdoche in Literature
In what is perhaps’s Eliot’s best-known poem ‘The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,’ there are several interesting examples of synecdoche. Throughout the poem, he uses stream of consciousness to convey his speaker’s experiences. The interior monologue follows a city-dwelling man who is overcome with feelings of isolation and indecisiveness. Here are a few lines from the poem that demonstrate how a writer might use synecdoche to their advantage:
There will be time, there will be time
To prepare a face to meet the faces that you meet;
There will be time to murder and create,
And time for all the works and days of hands
That lift and drop a question on your plate;
In these lines, readers can see clear examples of synecdoche with the phrase “a face to meet the faces that you meet” and “all the works and days of hands.” By speaking about people in this way, Eliot makes it clear that Prufrock has serious trouble connecting with others. He is plagued by his own insecurities.
Eliot goes on, continuing the poem with these lines and another example of synecdoche:
I know the voices dying with a dying fall
Beneath the music from a farther room.
The word “voices” is yet another way for the speaker to refer to other people by their parts. Just as “hands” and “faces” are parts of human beings, so too are their voices. These are examples of microcosmic synecdoche.
Read more of T.S. Eliot’s poetry.
In Dickinson’s poem, ‘I heard a Fly buzz-when I died,’ the poet uses synecdoche in the second stanza. Here are a few lines from that section of the poem:
The Eyes around – had wrung them dry –
And Breaths were gathering firm
For that last Onset – when the King
Be witnessed – in the Room –
In these lines, Dickinson uses the phrase “The Eyes around” as a way of describing the mourners around the deathbed. Of course, they aren’t just “eyes,” they are entire people. She uses a microcosmic synecdoche to make the imagery more interesting. There are other connections back to this image of “eyes” throughout the rest of the poem. Including words like “witnessed” and the final line “I could not see to see.” She encourages the reader to consider what’s being seen and what’s not being seen in this poem through the emphasis on eyes.
Read more poems by Emily Dickinson.
Hamlet by William Shakespeare
In Hamlet, readers can find many good examples of different literary devices. In the following passage, Shakespeare uses synecdoche to emphasize what Claudius has done.
‘Tis given out that, sleeping in my orchard,
A serpent stung me; so the whole ear of Denmark
Is by a forged process of my death
Rankly abused: but know, thou noble youth,
The serpent that did sting thy father’s life
Now wears his crown.
The line “the whole ear of Denmark,” is used to refer to the larger lie that the people of Denmark have been exposed to. The population has been misinformed in regard to what happened to the former king and now Hamlet is learning the truth by listening to the ghost’s story.
Synecdoche or Metonymy
Synecdoche and metonymy are similar literary devices and are often confused with one another. The first is a figure of speech and has to be connected to a relationship between a part and a whole, or vice versa. A metonymy, on the other hand, refers to two words that are closely linked. They don’t have to be part/whole of one another.
Why Do Writers Use Synecdoche?
Writers use synecdoche in order to emphasize a specific image or encourage the reader to think about something in a different way. The meaning of a phrase, character’s actions, setting, and more, can change entirely depending on how the writer describes it. This is especially impactful in examples such as that found in Dickinson’s ‘I heard a Fly buzz-when I died.’ Synecdoche makes expressions and language far more interesting as well, especially when they’re used originally and differently. Some of the most popular synecdoches, in contrast, are so well known that they no longer add anything to a piece of writing. For instance, using “the White House” to refer to the US government.
Related Literary Terms
- Extended Metaphor: a literary term that refers to a long metaphorical comparison that can last an entire poem.
- Simile: a comparison between two unlike things that uses the words “like” or “as”.
- Archaism: a figure of speech in which a writer’s choice of word or phrase is purposefully old fashioned
- Double Entendre: a literary device, phrase, and/or figure of speech that has multiple meanings or interpretations.