Synecdoche and Metonomy
Bill Long 12/04/04
Understanding (and Discarding) the "Orthodox" Explanation
Postmodern literary theorists have made us skeptical about embracing a "privileged account" of something. What they mean by that is that the goal of literary or philosophical criticism is to subject regnant orthodoxies to scrutiny, with a view to showing the flimsy underpinnings of these "orthodoxies." Orthodoxies are "privileged accounts" which need to be subject to the most intense examination. So, I will duly recite in this mini-essay the "accepted" definitions of each of these phenomena and intersperse in the recitation my argument that the definitions really make no sense.
Distinguishing the Terms
Orthodoxy represents the difference between these terms as follows: metonomy, the more general or inclusive term (sometimes synecdoche is seen as a "subset" of metonomy, but other times not) represents (according to the OED) "a figure of speech characterized by the actioin of substituting for a word or phrase denoticing an object, action, institution, etc. a word or phrase denoting a property or something associated with it." The key word here is "associated." Metonomy suggests a word that is associated with another word, while synecdoche suggests a word that is in contiguity with another word or a substitution for another word.*
[*Shouldn't this distinction make us pause skeptically? The competing images of association (metonomy) or contiguity (synecdoche) are themselves highly metaphorical and ambiguous, in my judgment. I get no clear "picture" in my mind of what is meant by the "contiguity" of two words, much less the distinction between contiguity and association].
But if the basic distinction between the two doesn't seem to make sense to me, the more precise definitions or examples leave me wondering (and reeling). Let's get to those. Synecdoche is usually defined much more precisely than metonomy. There are usually said to be five (sometimes six) kinds of synecdoche: the whole substituting for the part or the part for the whole; the species for the genus or the genus for the species; the material for the thing out of which it is made; or the cause for the effect. Sometimes the last is referred to as metonomy, though no one seems to give a convincing explanation of why it should be one or the other.
Illustrations of synecdoche are as follows. Part for the whole synecdoche is captured by "Give us this day our daily bread" or "All hands on deck!" We want more than bread, but bread "stands for" the whole supply of things eaten. The captain wants peoples' bodies on deck, too, but uses the word "hands" to capture the whole. Whole for the part synecdoche is represented in "The United States won three gold medals," while, in fact, the boxing team might have been the real winners of the medals. Genus for species synecdoche is represented by "what kind of creature are you?" Even though we might be disappointed with a person, we know that s/he is yet a person. Species for genus synecdoche is captured in using "kleenex" for "facial tissue." Finally, when we say a batter is "swinging the pine," we mean he is swinging a bat; we call a "penny" a "copper," or we call a credit card "plastic." These are examples of the material standing for the thing out of which it is made. [An example of cause/effect synecdoche is given in my racy example at the end of synecdoche.]
Examples of metonomy are said to be the following: the "crown" as representing the British monarchy because it is "associated" with it, the "White House" standing for the executive branch of the American system of government, the "Big Apple" for New York, etc. The "oval office" stands for the Presidency. "The pen is mightier than the sword" is said to consist of two metonomies because the "pen" really is associated with "print journalism" or "writing" while the "sword" stands for "military might." God's words to Adam in Genesis 3, that he should earn his bread "by the sweat of thy brow" is a metonmy because "sweat" is associated with "labor." If we say "here come the suits to audit my taxes," the word "suit" is a metonomy standing for the IRS.
Tell me this. If I say, "Most men chase skirts," is this an example of metonomy or synecdoche? On the one hand "skirts" are "associated" with women (unless we have in mind those hunky guys throwing cabers) but, on the other hand, a "skirt" might be a "part" of a woman. Thus, it is both metonomy and synecdoche. But let's get a little more crass. If we say, "Most men in their 20s really are only after a piece of ass," are we using metonomy or synecdoche? I am terribly confused, because use of terms like "piece of ass" not only shows us to be terribly sexist [a real "no no" in our day], but it can be "ass-ociated" (couldn't resist) [thus metonomy] with a woman as well as a "part" of a woman. I figure that any terminological distinctions that get me more and more confused about women have to be discarded. I am already confused enough as it is about women.
In fact, I can see no reason why the five or six categories of synecdoche must be predicated of synecdoche other than the fact that a dictionary says they should be so predicated. In addition, many examples of "association" attributed to metonomy might just as well be characterized as antonomasia (Surname) or prosonomasia (Nickname) or hypochorisma or epithet, for starters. Let's just leave things in the most general terms as words that substitute for other terms. Then maybe in a future essay we can put together the most general rhetorical terms, such as synecdoche and paronomasia and metaphor, and begin to build our own kingdom off of those. But not tonight.
Copyright © 2004-2008 William R. Long