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This article is about the linguistic term. For other uses, see Synecdoche (disambiguation).

A synecdoche (/sɪˈnɛkdək/, si-NEK-də-kee; from Greek synekdoche (συνεκδοχή), meaning "simultaneous understanding") is a figure of speech[1][2] in which a term for a part of something refers to the whole of something, or vice versa.[3][4] An example is referring to workers as hired hands.[5][6][not in citation given]

Similar figures of speech[edit]

Synecdoche is a rhetorical trope and a type of figurative speech similar to metonymy—a figure of speech in which a term that denotes one thing is used to refer to a related thing.[1][7] Indeed, synecdoche is sometimes considered a subclass of metonymy. It is more distantly related to other figures of speech, such as metaphor.[8]

More rigorously, metonymy and synecdoche can be considered 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,[9] the three terms have somewhat restrictive definitions, arguably in tune with a certain interpretation of their etymologies from Greek:


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


Synecdoche is often used as a type of personification, by attaching a human aspect to a non-human thing. This is used in reference to political relations, including "having a footing", used to mean a country or organization is in a position to act, or "the wrong hands", to describe opposing groups, usually in the context of military power.[10]

The two main types of synechdoche are microcosms and macrocosms. A microcosm is when a part of something is used to refer to the entirety.[11] An example of this would be someone saying that they “need a hand” with a project, when they really need the entire person.[12] A macrocosm is the opposite, when the entire structure of something is used to refer to a small part.[13] An example of this could be referring to the world, when the speaker just means a certain country or part of the world.[14] The figure of speech is divided into the image (what the speaker uses to refer to something) and the subject (what is being referred to).

This type of reference is quite common in American politics. For example, when an official spokesperson for the United States Department of Defense makes an announcement, the Department's headquarters building itself is credited for it, e.g. "The Pentagon announced new figures on combat deaths," while the executive mansion itself is often credited for statements made by a spokesperson of the Executive Office of the President of the United States, e,g, "The White House announced a new plan to reduce hunger."

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

It is also popular in advertising. Since synecdoche uses a part to represent a whole, its use requires the audience to make associations and "fill in the gaps", engaging with the ad by thinking about the product.[15] Moreover, catching the attention of an audience with advertising is often referred to by advertisers as "getting eyeballs", another synecdoche.[16] Synecdoche is very common in spoken English, especially in reference to sports. The names of cities are used as shorthand for their sports teams to describe events and their outcomes, such as "Denver won Monday's game", when specifically a sports team was victorious.[16]

Kenneth Burke on synecdoche[edit]

Kenneth Burke declared that in rhetoric the four master tropes, or figures of speech, are metaphor, metonymy, synecdoche, and irony. Burke's primary concern with these four master tropes is not simply their figurative usage, but with their role in the discovery and description of the truth.[17] He defined synecdoche as “part of the whole, whole for the part, container for the contained, sign for the thing signified, material for the thing made…cause for the effect, effect for the cause, genus for the species, species for the genus".[18] Burke's definition provides examples of relationships of convertibility. In addition, Burke suggests that synecdoche patterns can include reversible pairs such as disease-cure.[19]

Burke proclaimed the noblest synecdoche is found in the description of microcosm and macrocosm, “since microcosm is related to macrocosm as part to the whole, and either the whole can represent the part or the part can represent the whole".[19]

Burke also suggested that the word synecdoche can be substituted for the word representation.[17] For example, Burke presented synecdoche in a political realm. In some forms of government one is elected from a social body to represent the entirety of that specific social body. Therefore, this form of government displays a synecdochic relationship since it includes a form of representation, i.e., a part of the whole.


A part referring to the whole (pars pro toto)

In Wordsworth's "We Are Seven", the speaker says, "Your limbs they are alive" (l. 34). "Limbs" represent the entire body, so the narrator is trying to explain to the little girl that she is alive and breathing, unlike her two dead siblings.[20]/>

A general class name used to denote a specific member of that or an associated class
A specific class name that refers to a general set of associated things
The material that a thing is (actually, historically, or supposedly) made of referring to that thing
A container is used to refer to its contents

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b Definition of Synecdoche, St. Edward's University
  2. ^ Synecdoche - Definition from the Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary
  3. ^ Synecdoche Dictionary meaning, Merriam-Webster
  4. ^ N. R. Clifton (1983). The Figure on Film. University of Delaware Press. pp. 173–. ISBN 978-0-87413-189-5. Retrieved 19 May 2013. 
  5. ^ Oxford English Dictionary- synecdoche, University of Pennsylvania
  6. ^ Examples of Synecdoch e from day to day life
  7. ^ Jakobson, Roman & Morris Halle (1956). Fundamentals of Language. The Hague: Mouton. p. 95. ISBN 117871814X. 
  8. ^ Figurative Language- language using figures of speech, University of West Georgia
  9. ^ Lanham, Richard A (1991). A Handlist of Rhetorical Terms: A Guide for Students of English Literature, Second Edition. Berkeley/Los Angeles/London: California University Press. p. 189. ISBN 0-520-07669-9. 
  10. ^ Political Metaphors:
  11. ^ Burke, Kenneth. The Kenyon Review. Vol. 1. Gambier: Kenyon College, n.d. 426. New Ser. Vol. 32. Jstor. Ithaka. Web. <>
  12. ^ Enelow, David. "The Four Master Tropes." Untitled Document. Head-Royce School, n.d. Web. 30 Oct. 2014. <>
  13. ^ Burke, Kenneth. The Kenyon Review. Vol. 1. Gambier: Kenyon College, n.d. 426. New Ser. Vol. 32. Jstor. Ithaka. Web. <>
  14. ^ Enelow, David. "The Four Master Tropes." Untitled Document. Head-Royce School, n.d. Web. 30 Oct. 2014. <>.
  15. ^ Chandler, Daniel, Semiotics: the Basics. Routledge, New York, 2007. (132-133):,%20162;&f=false
  16. ^ a b Synecdoche: The Art of Getting Eyeballs, Liz Bureman:
  17. ^ a b Burke, Kenneth (1945). A Grammar of Motives. New York: Prentice Hall. p. 503. 
  18. ^ Burke, Kenneth (1945). A Grammar of Motives. New York: Prentice Hall. pp. 507–508. 
  19. ^ a b Burke, Kenneth (1945). A Grammar of Motives. New York: Prentice Hall. p. 508. 
  20. ^ Stephen Greenblatt et al. The Norton Anthology of English Literature, volume D, 9th edition (Norton, 2012)

Further reading[edit]

External links[edit]