synecdoche, figure of speech, a species of metaphor, in which a part of a person or thing is used to designate the whole—thus, "The house was built by 40 hands" for "The house was built by 20 people." See metonymy.

Synecdoche is taken from Greek sinekdohi (συνεκδοχή), meaning "simultaneous understanding" (pronounced [[Help:pronunciation|/sɪˈnɛkdoˌki/]]). a figure of speech in which:

  • a term denoting a part of something is used to refer to the whole thing, or
  • a term denoting a thing (a "whole") is used to refer to part of it, or
  • a term denoting a specific class of thing is used to refer to a larger, more general class, or
  • a term denoting a general class of thing is used to refer to a smaller, more specific class, or
  • a term denoting a material is used to refer to an object composed of that material.


The word "synecdoche" is derived from the Greek συνεκδοχή, from the prepositions συν- + εκ- and the verb -δέχομαι (accept), meaning originally the acceptance of a part of the responsibility for something.

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 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 p. 189 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, or vice versa.
  • synecdoche: substitution of a part for whole, genus for species, 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/she is referring to.

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.


  • Examples where a part of something is used to refer to the whole:
    • "The ship was lost with all hands [sailors]."
    • "His parents bought him a new set of wheels [car]."
    • Similarly, "mouths to feed" for hungry people, "white hair" for an elderly person, "the press" for news media.
    • For nations, "Britain", "Great Britain" (that is, the largest of the British Isles) or "England" is sometimes incorrectly used to mean the entire United Kingdom, as is "Holland" for the Netherlands or as "Russia" (formerly) was for the Soviet Union. From 1992 to 2003, the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia was commonly called "Serbia" due to the political and cultural dominance of Serbia within the state.

  • Examples where the whole of something is used to refer to a part of it:
    • "Use your head [brain] to figure it out."
    • "Michigan [the government of Michigan] just passed a law addressing this problem."
    • Similarly, "body" for the trunk of the body, the "smiling year" for spring.
  • Examples where a species (specific kind) is used to refer to its genus (more general kind):
    • "The cutthroats [assassins] there will as soon shoot a man as look at him."
    • "Could you pass me a Kleenex [facial tissue]?"
    • "I've just finished with the hoover [vacuum cleaner]."
    • Similarly, "coke" for pop/soda, "castle" for home, "meat" or "bread" for food, "Judas" for traitor.
  • Examples where the material from which an object is made is used to refer to the object itself:
    • "Those are some nice threads [clothes]."
    • Similarly, "willow" for cricket bat, "copper" for penny, "roof" for a house, "boards" for stage, "ivories" for piano keys, "plastic" for credit card, "the hardwood" for a gym floor, "pigskin" for football, "steel" for a sword, "lead" for a bullet and "rubber" for vehicle tires.

See also


  • Smyth, Herbert Weir (1920). Greek Grammar. Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press. ISBN 0-674-36250-0.

  • 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. ISBN 0-520-07669-9.

External links

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