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Synecdoche (from Greek synekdoche (συνεκδοχή), meaning "simultaneous understanding") is a figure of speech 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 speech

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, 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.

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" for an older man or "the long hair" for a hippie
  • Describing a complete vehicle as "wheels"
  • Calling a worker "a pair of hands"
    • 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.
A whole thing referring to a part of it
  • "The city posted a sign," which means that an employee of the local government (but not the geographic location or all of its residents) posted a sign
  • "Capitol Hill," when referring to the US Legislature
A general class name used to denote a specific member of that or an associated class
  • "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 also

Unless indicated otherwise, the text in this article is either based on Wikipedia article "Synecdoche" or another language Wikipedia page thereof used under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License; or on research by Jahsonic and friends. See Art and Popular Culture's copyright notice.

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