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A Hypertext Resource for Literature

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Literary Tropes
[Page 3]

Metonymy and Synecdoche

Metonymy is a device by which one word or phrase substitutes for another on the basis of some conceptual connection between them. If you say you are reading Byron, for example, you probably mean that you are reading a work of literature written by Byron. Metonymy here substitutes the work for its author, but we understand the meaning of the phrase because of the close association between them. (That close association separates metonymy from metaphor, which gains its power from the comparison of conventionally unlike things.)

Thorough guides to literary terms can provide more examples of the types and functions of rhetorical metonymy. You can also think of metonymy as the way people in the business of persuasion try to influence you. Companies sell cheap beer by attempting to build metonymies connecting their products so beaches, beautiful people, sex, and vacations. Politicians and their staff try to influence your votes by creating metonymic images of candidates standing with flags, diverse crowds, and public servants. Whoever created this fake image of John Kerry with Jane Fonda understood the force of metonymy, as do the oppoenents of George W. Bush who circulate this photograph of Bush holding hands with Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah. Much of becoming a self-conscious, critical consumer and voter depends on cultivating an awareness of metonymy and its uses in public discourse.

Sometimes classified as a kind of metonymy and sometimes as its own kind of trope, synecdoche (pronounced sin-EK-duh-KEE) is the substitution of a part for a whole or vice versa. If you say someone has a nice set of wheels, you generally mean to compliment an entire car (part for whole); if you say that the United States has invaded Iraq, you mean that some U.S. military forces have done so (whole for part). Like metonymy, synecdoche can be a powerful cultural force. For example, take this story about the first President Bush's encounter with grocery store technology in 1988. The episode became famous in spite of the fact that very few people care would say they value a President's knowledge of local grocery stores. The story became famous, rightly or wrongly, purely because of its status as a synecdoche: Bush's opponents could cite his wonder at a grocery store scanner to illustrate what they saw as his more general lack of knowledge about the lives of most voters (part for whole). Much of politics involves one candidate trying to make his or her own positive images or statements into synecdoches for general virtues and his or her oppoenents' unflattering images or statements into synecdoches for general faults.

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