The Grammarphobia Blog

Synecdoche on his mind

Q: I recently watched the film “Synecdoche, New York,” and wonder if you would comment on the screenwriter’s use and understanding of the first word in the title.

A: I haven’t seen the film, so I can’t comment on the relevance of the title. I know it’s an intellectually playful movie, and it’s set partly in Schenectady, so the pun was no doubt irresistible to the director and screenwriter Charlie Kaufman.

Years before the film came out, Leonard Lopate and I were asked on the air to discuss the difference between “metonymy” and “synecdoche.” Leonard can never resist a pun. He said, “Isn’t the second one a town in upstate New York?” He was ahead of his time!

(I mention this story at the beginning of “In High Dungeon: And Other Moat Points,” a chapter in Origins of the Specious, a new book that my husband and I have written to debunk myths about the English language. In fact, the title of the chapter comes from another of Leonard’s puns.)

“Synecdoche” and “metonymy” are figures of speech in which one thing is used to represent another. In both of these rhetorical figures, the original term and the substitute are closely identified or associated with each other.

In this respect, “synecdoche” and “metonymy” are different from “metaphor,” in which the terms are unrelated yet imaginatively similar (as when you call your ’67 Pontiac “a boat”).

With, “synecdoche,” a part is used to represent the whole or vice versa. Examples commonly cited are the use of “hand” to mean a sailor and “the cavalry” to mean a single trooper. It’s pronounced sin-EK-duh-kee and comes from a Greek word meaning “to take with something else.” (“Schenectady,” the ninth-largest city in New York State, is pronounced skuh-NEK-tuh-dee.)

With “metonymy,” the substituted word is not a part (or an extension) of the original but something associated with it. Classic examples are “the crown” to represent the monarchy and “the sword” to represent military power. It’s pronounced met-ON-uh-mee and comes from a Greek word meaning “change of name.”

Here’s a simple illustration of the difference. A new guy at the office might be described as “a new face” (synecdoche) or as “a new suit” (metonymy).

If you’d like to read about a related subject, I had a blog item last year about metaphors and similes.

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