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Today we’re looking at a literary device that you’re probably using in everyday speech, even if you didn’t know the name of it. Let’s define synecdoche, look at some examples, and talk about how you can use it in your writing.
What is Synecdoche?
Definition of Synecdoche: It’s a figure of speech that uses a part of something to refer to the whole of that something.
For example, the term “getting eyeballs” is a synecdoche from the advertising world meaning they want to draw the attention of potential customers.
Obviously the jeans brand Wrangler isn’t trying to remove and collect your eyeballs when they show a commercial with a country music star in their jeans. They are just trying to get you to pay attention. The term “eyeballs” as a reference to the viewer is an example of synecdoche.
Literature abounds with examples of synecdoche. In John Steinbeck’s novel Of Mice and Men, for example, the character Slim calls the people working the farm “hands.” Steinbeck chooses “hands” to refer to the workers. Why? Some might argue it shows the way entire people are reduced to the work they are able to perform.
It’s become a part of everyday language though in many regions to call someone who works hard a “good hand” or to ask someone to “lend a hand.” These are all variations on this same example of synecdoche. The “hand” refers to the body doing the helping.
In William Shakespeare’s Hamlet, when his mother cries out at his accusations, she says, “O, speak to me no more; / These words, like daggers, enter in mine ears.” While it’s true that his words are entering her ears and hearing, the word “ears” here is also referring to her body, mind, and conscience.
Shakespeare uses “ears” as synecdoche and metaphor throughout Hamlet to emphasize the crime committed against the king (who was poisoned in his ear) and the “poisoning” of Denmark by the murderer and new king Claudius.
Examples of Another Type of Synecdoche
Synecdoche also refers to the reverse, when you use a whole to refer to a part of the whole. This happens a lot when referring to sports teams and the names of cities. For example, if I said Denver schooled Oakland in Monday night’s game, I’m referring to the team.
Obviously, the entire city of Denver did not decide to migrate en masse to Oakland and play a massive city vs. city game of football (although there might be something in that idea). When someone says, “Denver won Monday’s game,” they mean specifically the Denver Broncos.
How to Use Synecdoche in Your Writing
You can use synecdoche to characterize your cast. After all, Captain Hook probably didn’t go by that moniker while he still had both hands. An older character with a beard could be referred to as “gray beard.” A teacher herding children visiting a planetarium might be “counting heads.”
You can use it to emphasize what’s important. Maybe you have a romance set in England and a character asks, “Are you dating Buckingham Palace?” The palace refers to the royal person in question—a part of the whole.
Synecdoche can be a way to heighten voice, to emphasize certain characteristics, or show what’s valuable or on theme. I hope you find ways to use it in your writing today!
Have you ever heard of synecdoche before? What is your favorite example of synecdoche? Share in the comments.
Pick a sports team, any sports team. Could be professional, or it could be your eight-year-old nephew’s pee wee football team. Write about a major win or loss for fifteen minutes using as much synecdoche as possible.
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