Metonymy and Synecdoche

  Jerome Shea       December 17, 2012      Weekend Wonk

A while back I wrote about metaphor (Metaphors Be With You) and its poor relation, simile. Now it is time to talk about metonymy and synecdoche. Especially metonymy, which I am determined to pin down once and for all. (Free wrestling metaphor, wonkees!)

And it should be so simple.

But first let’s back up. Metaphor—“to carry across”—we all know. It’s the identity trope (i.e., figurative identity). If I say that Charlie is a pig, you know that Charlie, though not a real pig, demonstrates the worst that we (unjustly?) attribute to our porcine friends: He is greedy, slovenly, and so forth. (Or maybe Charlie is a policeman, a pig—but is that a metaphor? I’m not going there.) On the other hand, maybe Charlie is a spoonful of fun. You can say what you want about old Charlie, figuratively. We get a lot of thinking done this way. Rub two identities together and get the spark of an idea.

Metonymy and synecdoche are first cousins of metaphor, but we get only half of the identity and assume the other. In its simplest form, a metonymic term is somehow associated with, connected to, contiguous to, what the speaker really means. “White House” is a popular metonym, standing in for the current administration (“The White House announced today…”). My dictionary also offers “bottle,” as in “his love affair with the bottle [i.e., alcohol] was deep and true.” Synecdoche is, to my mind, very closely related yet rhetoricians have always been zealous to distinguish them. Sheridan Baker lists exhaustively the rules for synecdoche as substituting a part for the whole (“hired hand” for a ranch worker), the whole for a part (“Philadelphia” for its major league ball club, the Phillies),* the species for the genus (“Casanova” for any Don Juan [another synecdoche!]), the genus for the species (“cat” for lion, tiger, etc.), and the material for the object it is made from (“Detroit iron” for American cars in their heyday). Got all that?

Advertisers know that metonymy sells things because association, however spurious, sells things. The Marlboro Man is a classic example. Marlboro smokers (like you) are macho, independent, and ruggedly handsome, harkening back to a simpler way of life, Pilgrim. Wear a certain cologne or sport a certain expensive wristwatch or drink a certain scotch and you too will live in a SoHo loft and have women eyeing you hungrily, just like in the ads. Metaphors, on the other hand, are based upon likeness, real or imagined. Freud famously said that a cigar is sometimes just a cigar. But not when it is busy being a phallic symbol. And while we are on the subject, “balls,” meaning courage or effrontery, is a metonym. Or is it a synecdoche? Can it be both? You see why a rhetorician wants to throw up his hands and lump them all under metaphor.

Kenneth Burke, at whose name all academics genuflect, called metaphor, metonymy, and synecdoche—along with irony—the Four Master Tropes. Other theorists (and please don’t count me as one) have been struggling with this insight ever since. The romance of it I like. Sounds like the Holy Grail or the Philosopher’s Stone. But that is as far as I can go.

The Oxford Companion to the English Language—an invaluable book and one I always recommend to my students—is somewhat more helpful. It points out that metaphor, metonymy, and synecdoche are often very hard to distinguish, one from another (duh!). As if to demonstrate this, they cite “redneck” as an example of metonymy. But isn’t that more properly synecdoche? Under the synecdoche heading, it instances the mischief that arrogating “America” for just the USA can cause with our neighbors on these two continents. (And the irony is that “America” was a misnomer anyway.) Metonymy can sometimes fly under the radar. How often have you said something like “I’m parked just one block over.” You’re not parked one block over, your Buick is. Metonymy.

Well, it looks as if I have not pinned it down after all. This has been the quixotic quest that I secretly suspected it would be. But metaphor, metonymy, and synecdoche are lovely tropes anyway, enriching our language and challenging our imaginations.

A couple of parting observations. If you doubt that this is a (metaphorically) manly nation, the next time you are in Washington, DC, check out old George’s monument. Father of our country indeed! And plumbers have, with nary a blush, always referred to male and female fittings. We have dead metaphors (“the spur of the moment”); are there dead synecdoches, too?

*This made for wonderful headlines re parochial high school football, e.g., “Blessed Virgin Wallops St. Joseph.”

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