Difference Between Similar Terms and Objects

Difference Between Synecdoche and Metonymy

Synecdoche and metonymy are both figures of speech. They were parts of Ancient Greek rhetoric and their names have been passed down through Latin to the English language. The concepts are very similar, and in some cases overlapping, which causes a lot of confusion. Worse, there is a lot of conflicting information out there regarding the difference.

A metonym is a figure of speech where a thing is referred to by the name of something that is connected to it. For example, it’s common to refer to news media, from the people who report on it to the people who gather it, as ‘the press’. This is short for ‘printing press’, which used to be used to make newspapers, the major source of news at the time. Military officers are sometimes referred to as ‘brass’ because brass is a common alloy in insignias and buttons. Both of those are used to signal rank among military officers.

It is also incredibly common to refer to bodies of government as the place where the government is run. In the United States, ‘Washington D.C.’, or just ‘Washington’, are both used to mean the general government, while ‘the White House’ means the president and other members of the executive branch. In the United Kingdom, ‘Buckingham’ refers to the royal family while ‘10 Downing Street’ means the Prime Minister’s staff and ‘Westminster’ means the British Parliament.

Synecdoche is a type of metonymy. It refers specifically to when a part of something is used to represent the whole or vice versa. For instance, ‘we have hungry mouths to feed’. In the phrase, ‘mouths’ is used to represent the hungry people and it is synecdoche because mouths are part of people. In Canada, one dollar coins are known as ‘loonies’, because the coin has an image of a loon on it, so the image represents the whole. Other common types of synecdoche refer to the material the object is made of. Spectacles, meaning the object used to correct faulty sight, are now known as glasses because their lenses were made of glass.

It can also mean when the whole of something is used to talk about just a part. Police officers can be referred to as ‘the law’, for example. Another common phrase is ‘people,’ or the term for a group of persons, to refer to a single person. You can see an example of this in the sentence, “He’s good people.”

Synecdoche can also have multiple layers. For instance, a piano can be called ‘ivories’. This is because it is being called by a term for the piano keys. That itself is a synecdoche: keys are called that because they are commonly made of ivory. Thus, calling a piano ‘ivories’ is what is known as a complex synecdoche.

Some people make a distinction between metonymy and synecdoche. The most common one found is that synecdoche is used with a part of the thing in question and metonymy is used with something that is connected but not a part. This is technically correct. Since synecdoche is a type of metonymy, it is fair to say that all types of metonymy that are not synecdoche are metonymy. However, synecdoche is still a type of metonymy, so anything that is synecdoche is also metonymy.

To summarize, metonymy is when an object or concept is called by the name of something related to the object. Synecdoche is a specific type of metonymy where the related thing is part of the object in question. Some people say that synecdoche is completely separated from metonymy, but it is actually part of metonymy.

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  1. This is an immensely useful explanation of synecdoche and metonymy and the difference between them. I’m presently teaching Figures of Speech to some grade 11 pupils (private extra English) and they are struggling to understand these two. This has helped me to compose some additional notes for them. I now have greater understanding myself after wading through some confusing texts.
    Sincere thanks.

  2. Really useful thanks 🙂
    One point re “In the United Kingdom, ‘Buckingham’ refers to the royal family …”
    The name Buckingham alone doesn’t serve this purpose (Buckingham is a city a fair way from London with no particular royal connection). We would either say ‘Buckingham Palace’ or ‘the Palace’ to refer to the royal family.
    Love and kudos 🙂

  3. This makes it so much easier to teach my poetry class. Very lucid explanation. Thanks!

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