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Synecdoche (11px /sɪˈnɛkdək/; from Greek synekdoche (συνεκδοχή), meaning "simultaneous understanding") is a figure of speech[1] in which a term is used in one of the following ways:

  • Part of something is used to refer to the whole thing (pars pro toto), or
  • A thing (a "whole") is used to refer to part of it (totum pro parte), or
  • A specific class of thing is used to refer to a larger, more general class, or
  • A general class of thing is used to refer to a smaller, more specific class, or
  • A material is used to refer to an object composed of that material, or
  • A container is used to refer to its contents.

Similar figures of speechEdit

Synecdoche is closely related to metonymy (the figure of speech in which a term denoting one thing is used to refer to a related thing); indeed, synecdoche is sometimes considered a subclass of metonymy. It is more distantly related to other figures of speech, such as metaphor.

More rigorously, metonymy and synecdoche may be considered as sub-species of metaphor, intending metaphor as a type of conceptual substitution (as Quintilian does in Institutio oratoria Book VIII). In Lanham's Handlist of Rhetorical Terms,[2] the three terms have somewhat restrictive definitions, arguably in tune with a certain interpretation of their etymologies from Greek:

  • metaphor: changing a word from its literal meaning to one not properly applicable but analogous to it; assertion of identity rather than, as with simile, likeness.
  • metonymy: substitution of cause for effect, proper name for one of its qualities, etc.
  • synecdoche: substitution of a part for whole, species for genus, etc.


The word "synecdoche" is derived from the Greek word συνεκδοχή, from the prepositions συν- + εκ- and the verb δέχομαι (= "I accept"), originally meaning accepting a part as responsible for the whole, or vice versa.


The use of synecdoche is a common way to emphasize an important aspect of a fictional character; for example, a character might be consistently described by a single body part, such as the eyes, which come to represent the character. This is often used when the main character does not know or care about the names of the characters that he is referring to. An example of this would be the X-Files character Cigarette-Smoking Man.

Also, sonnets and other forms of love poetry frequently use synecdoches to characterize the beloved in terms of individual body parts rather than a whole, coherent self. This practice is especially common in the Petrarchan sonnet, where the idealised beloved is often described part by part, from head to toe.


A part referring to the whole
  • Referring to people according to a single characteristic: "the gray beard" representing an older man or "the long hair" representing a hippie. This leads to bahuvrihi compounds.
  • "Most men in their 20s really are only after a piece of ass."[3][4] Here, ass or piece of ass is used to have a single one of a woman's qualities/parts - the provision of sexual satisfaction/one body part - stand for the entire woman.
  • Describing a complete vehicle as "wheels"
  • Calling workers "hands", e.g. Many hands make light work; All hands on deck!
  • Before and during the Cold War, the Soviet Union was commonly referred to by its largest and most well-known member, Russia.
  • Use of the names England (only one of the four constituent nations) or Great Britain (the geographical name of the main island) to mean the entire United Kingdom.
  • Use of Holland, a region of the Netherlands, to refer to the entire country.
A general class name used to denote a specific member of that or an associated class
  • "the good book," or "The Book" for the Bible
  • "truck" for any four-wheel drive vehicle (as well as long-haul trailers, etc.)
  • "He's good people." [Here, the word "people" is used to denote a specific instance of people, i.e. a person. So the sentence would be interpreted as "He's a good person.")
A specific class name used to refer to a general set of associated things
The material that a thing is made of referring to that thing
A container is used to refer to its contents
  • "barrel" for a barrel of oil
  • "keg" for a keg of beer

See alsoEdit

References Edit

Further readingEdit

  • Monateri, Pier Giuseppe (1958). La Sineddoche. Formule e regole nel diritto delle obbligazioni e dei contratti. Milano: Giuffré. 

External links Edit

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