A synecdoche (/sɪˈnɛkdəki/ sin-NEK-də-kee,[1] from Greek συνεκδοχή, synekdochē, 'simultaneous understanding')[2] is a figure of speech in which a term for a part of something refers to the whole of something or vice versa.[3][4][5][6]

An example of a synecdoche: the term "boot" can be used to mean soldier

A synecdoche is a class of metonymy, often by means of either mentioning a part for the whole or conversely the whole for one of its parts. Examples from common English expressions include suits for businessmen, wheels for car, and boots for soldiers.

The use of government buildings to refer to their occupants is metonymy and sometimes also synecdoche. "The Pentagon" for the United States Department of Defense can be considered synecdoche, because the building can be considered part of the bureaucracy.[7] Similarly, "The White House" is also an instance of synecdoche since it is widely used to signify the Office of the U.S. president.[8][9] In the same way, using "Number 10" to mean "the Office of the Prime Minister" (of the United Kingdom) is a synecdoche. Similarly, the names of capital cities referring to the sovereign states they govern follows this pattern.[10]


Synecdoche is a rhetorical trope and a kind of metonymy—a figure of speech using a term to denote one thing to refer to a related thing.[11][12]

Synecdoche (and thus metonymy) is distinct from metaphor[13] although in the past, it was considered to be a 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,[14] the three terms possess somewhat restrictive definitions in tune with 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 likeness as with simile.[citation needed]
  • Metonymy: substitution of cause for effect, proper name for one of its qualities.[citation needed]


Synecdoche is often used as a type of personification by attaching a human aspect to a nonhuman thing. It is used in reference to political relations, including "having a footing", 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.[15]

The two main types of synecdoche are microcosm and macrocosm. A microcosm uses a part of something to refer to the entirety.[16] An example of this is saying “I need a hand" with a project... but needing the entire person.[17] A macrocosm is the opposite, using the name of the entire structure of something to refer to a small part.[16] An example of this is saying "the world" while referring to a certain country or part of the planet.[17] The figure of speech is divided into the image (what the speaker uses to refer to something) and the subject (what is referred to).

In politics, the residence or location of an executive can be used to represent the office itself. For example, "the White House" can mean the Executive Office of the President of the United States; "Buckingham Palace" can mean the crown of the United Kingdom; "the Sublime Porte" can mean the Ottoman Empire; and "the Kremlin" can mean the government of Russia.[citation needed]

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, head-to-toe.[citation needed]

Synecdoche 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.[18] Moreover, catching the attention of an audience with advertising is often referred to by advertisers with the synedoche "getting eyeballs".[19] Synecdoche is 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", while accuracy would require a sports team from the city won the game.[19]

Kenneth Burke (1945), an American literary theorist, 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 more than simply their figurative usage, but includes their role in the discovery and description of the truth.[20] He described 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".[21] In addition, Burke suggests synecdoche patterns can include reversible pairs such as disease-cure.[22] 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".[22] Burke compares synecdoche with the concept of "representation", especially in the political sense in which elected representatives stand in pars pro toto for their electorate.[20]


Part referring to whole (pars pro toto)Edit

  • Referring to a person according to a single characteristic: "gray beard" meaning an old man
  • Referring to a sword as a "blade"
  • Describing a complete vehicle as "wheels", or, referring to a manual transmission vehicle as a "stick"
  • Referring to people by a particular body part; for example, "head count" or "counting noses" or "all hands on deck"
  • Using "tickling the ivories" to mean playing the piano (since piano keys were historically made of ivory)
  • Describing a meal as a "bite to eat"

General class name that denotes a specific member of that or an associated classEdit

  • "I was interviewed by the New York Times."
  • "The Government made a statement on the issue yesterday."
  • Referring to an account of an online service provider by the name of the provider, e.g. "Send it to my Gmail" or "the celebrity's official Twitter"

Specific class name referring to general set of associated thingsEdit

Referring to material actually or supposedly used to make somethingEdit

Container refers to its contentsEdit

  • "barrel" for a barrel of oil
  • "keg" for a keg of beer
  • "She drank the cup", to refer to her drinking of the cup's contents
  • "He hit the bottle", to refer to his drinking (large quantities) of liquor

See alsoEdit


  1. ^ Wells, John C. (2008), Longman Pronunciation Dictionary (3rd ed.), Longman, ISBN 9781405881180
  2. ^ from the verb ἐκδέχομαι "to take or receive from another" (simplex δέχομαι "to receive"). "συνεκ-δοχή, ἡ, A. understanding one thing with another: hence in Rhet., synecdoche, an indirect mode of expression, when the whole is put for a partQuint.Inst. 8.6.19, Aristid.Quint. 2.9, Ps.-Plu.Vit.Hom. 22." Henry George Liddell. Robert Scott. A Greek-English Lexicon. Revised and augmented throughout by Sir Henry Stuart Jones with the assistance of Roderick McKenzie. Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1940.
  3. ^ "Oxford English Dictionary: synecdoche". 1998 – via University of Pennsylvania.
  4. ^ Clifton, N. R. (1983). The Figure on Film. University of Delaware Press. pp. 173–. ISBN 978-0-87413-189-5. Retrieved 19 May 2013.
  5. ^ Klawitter, George. "Synecdoche". St. Edward's University. Archived from the original on 13 October 2008.
  6. ^ "Synecdoche". Merriam-Webster. Retrieved 2 January 2019.
  7. ^ Heitman, Jane (2 January 2019). Figurative Language Quick Starts Workbook. Carson-Dellosa Publishing. ISBN 978-1-4838-5503-5.
  8. ^ "Synecdoche - Examples and Definition of Synecdoche". Literary Devices. 16 October 2020. Retrieved 29 June 2021.
  9. ^ Cauley, Marty A. Misthological Models Part 3: Vantage Points and the Bride of Christ (Volume 3). Misthological Press.
  10. ^ Tabbert, Ulrike (15 November 2016). Language and Crime: Constructing Offenders and Victims in Newspaper Reports. Springer. ISBN 978-1-137-45351-8.
  11. ^ Glossary of Rhetorical Terms, University of Kentucky
  12. ^ Jakobson, Roman & Morris Halle (1956). Fundamentals of Language. The Hague: Mouton. p. 95. ISBN 978-1178718140.
  13. ^ Figurative Language- language using figures of speech, University of West Georgia
  14. ^ 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 978-0-520-07669-3.
  15. ^ "President Obama's State of the Union Address". Metaphors in American Politics. Archived from the original on 5 March 2014. Retrieved 2 January 2019.
  16. ^ a b Burke, Kenneth (1941). "Four Master Tropes". The Kenyon Review. Kenyon College. 3 (4): 426. JSTOR 4332286.
  17. ^ a b Enelow, David. "The Four Master Tropes". Head-Royce School. Retrieved 30 October 2014.
  18. ^ Chandler, Daniel (2007). Semiotics: the Basics. New York: Routledge. pp. 132–133. ISBN 978-1-134-32476-7.
  19. ^ a b Bureman, Liz (24 September 2013). "Synecdoche: The Art of Getting Eyeballs". The Write Practice. Retrieved 2 January 2019.
  20. ^ a b Burke, Kenneth (1945). A Grammar of Motives. New York: Prentice Hall. p. 503.
  21. ^ Burke, Kenneth (1945). A Grammar of Motives. New York: Prentice Hall. pp. 507–508.
  22. ^ a b Burke, Kenneth (1945). A Grammar of Motives. New York: Prentice Hall. p. 508.

Further readingEdit

  • Smyth, Herbert Weir (1920). Greek Grammar. Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press. p. 683. ISBN 978-0-674-36250-5.
  • Monateri, Pier Giuseppe (1958). La Sineddoche. Formule e regole nel diritto delle obbligazioni e dei contratti. Milano: Giuffré.

External linksEdit

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