Friday, June 17, 2011

Metonymy and Synecdoche: Two More Closely Related Figures of Speech

While learning to navigate the Intercoastal Waterway from Ft. Lauderdale to Miami, Florida, the captain seemed unusually concerned about the local sheriff’s deputies and Homeland Security assigned to patrol the waters, especially evident through Port Everglades. The captain cried, “Heat. That’s the heat. Check your wake. It’s a no-wake zone.” The wake was fine; he was just exceedingly nervous.

When he referred to law enforcement as the heat, he was using a trope, also known as figurative language. The heat is an example of metonymy whereby the writer or speaker substitutes a word closely associated with an idea, office, or person, in this case heat substituted for police or the law.

Police can certainly bring the heat to miscreants, law-breakers, and folks under the influence. In other words, law enforcers apply pressure by their very presence or their abilities to disrupt a citizen’s poor choices, and applying pressure is bringing the heat. I suspect that captain had had more than one run-in with the heat, and they had disrupted his less than stellar behavior while in port.

Other examples of metonymy include:

• Top brass » High-ranking military officers
• White House » President of the U. S.
• Detroit » Auto industry
• Red-letter day » Holidays and Festivals (usually noted on calendars with red fonts)
• Redneck » Working class, ranchers, farmers (men whose necks burn red, then brown because they work outdoors; also associated with political and social behaviors that may include pickup trucks, firearms, reenactment groups, chewing tobacco, and beer)
• A man of the cloth » A reverend, preacher, priest, or minister
• Paparazzi » A type of journalist who stalks his celebrity prey and works for newspapers and magazines that journalism schools try to ignore

Synecdoche is similar to metonymy and often mistaken for metonymy. Whereas metonymy refers to an idea, person, or thing by substituting a word commonly associated with the idea, person or thing, synecdoche uses a part of the idea, person, or thing to suggest the whole. For example, when my husband and I were onboard a trawler, learning to navigate the Intercoastal Waterway, the captain could have referred to us as hands as in deckhands or all hands on deck. In this phrase, hands refers to the whole person functioning as the crew, the helpers, or the labor force.

Other examples of synecdoche include:

• G.I. Joe » toy soldiers
• West Wing » White House and/or President
• Hearth » Heart of the Home
• Plastic » Credit Card
• The Badge » Police Officer
• Cupid’s Arrow » Love
• Sawbones » Surgeon

As other tropes do, metonymy and synecdoche enliven and enrich text. They provide figures of speech to prick the imaginations of readers, helping them experience the words rather than just read them.

Reading Challenge:

Shakespeare made great use of both metonymy and synecdoche. Film also makes extensive use of these concepts. For example, a director may film a city park gone to ruin, the swings no longer suspended but lying on the ground, a slide with missing ladder rungs. With such a scene, the director suggests that the city has decayed and/or people who live nearby are impoverished.

Read or re-read Shakespeare with an eye to metonymy and synecdoche. Write down Shakespeare’s uses of these tropes in your writing journal.



Or watch a favorite movie, studying the background scenes. What ideas, people or larger wholes do the scenes suggest?

Writing Challenge:

Create a metonymic trope for a political party. Now write a synecdoche for the same party.

Grammar, Usage and Mechanics (GUM): More Commonly Confused Words

A recent commercial plays upon the ages old debate about which came first, the chicken or the egg. The voices of John Goodman and Steve Buscemi are perfect matches for the self-assured chicken and the confident egg as each one asserts that his existence preceded the other. And that brings me to this week’s commonly confused words: precede and proceed.

Precede, as used in the second sentence above, means to come before. For example: careful revision and proofreading precede the final draft of essays that earn the highest scores.

Proceed, on the other hand, means to go forward. For example: after revising your essay, you may proceed to the next step, proofreading. Or, after paying the admission price, you may proceed into the theater.

Connye Griffin writes about literature and writing for My Writing and Editing Coach