Metonymy vs synecdoche: what’s the difference?

I have a confession to make: as a self-professed lit expert, I find the difference between metonymy and synecdoche a hard one to remember.

For the longest time, I would just google whenever this topic came up in lessons and not bother with actually finding a solution to remember the difference between these two dreaded devices. After all, they’re kind of niche, and not exactly the bread and butter of lit analysis. But when I noticed one of my students mixing up metonymy with synecdoche in one of his exam essays, my pedagogical conscience came knocking on the door, and I decided that I would come up with a solution for to tell metonymy and synecdoche apart once and for all. 

To start, let’s recall the definitions of metonymy (pronounced ‘meh-TON-no-mee’) and synecdoche (pronounced ‘sin-NECK-doe-KEE’): 

Metonymy

The act of referring to something by the name of something else that is closely connected with it, for example using the White House for the US president

Synecdoche

A word or phrase in which a part of something is used to represent a whole, or a whole is used to represent a part of something, for example referring to “all hands on deck”, where “hands” refer to the whole crew 

Of course, if these definitions (and examples) were actually helpful, the devices wouldn’t be so hard to tell apart in the first place.

So, definitions aside, let’s examine the prefix of each term: 

 

Met-onymy vs. Syn-ecdoche

‘Met-’, ‘meto-’, ‘meta-’.

Perhaps another word that comes to mind which starts with the prefix ‘met-’ is ‘metamorphosis’, meaning change. So, when something changes into a related, but different, form, that’s metonymy at work. A metonym is usually a quality of a greater idea / bigger object being described.

‘Syn-’.

Recall the word ‘synergy’ or ‘synthesis’? Both words mean the combination of things, the melding of things together. And ‘together’ is exactly what the prefix ‘syn-’ means. This is why, if we’re looking at an example of synecdoche, then the ‘part’ used to stand in for the ‘whole’ must be an inherent piece of the bigger object, i.e. the ‘part’ and ‘whole’ must have already been ‘together’ in their original form. This explains how “hands” in the phrase “all hands on deck” qualifies as synecdoche: hands are an inherent part of the human body, which the ship crew members have.

To illustrate what metonymy and synecdoche look like in context, let’s look at two poems.

 

Metonymy in ‘We Lying by Seasand’, Dylan Thomas

“We lying by seasand, watching yellow
And the grave sea, mock who deride
Who follow the red rivers, hollow
Alcove of words out of cicada shade,
For in this yellow grave of sand and sea
A calling for colour calls with the wind
That’s grave and gay as grave and sea
Sleeping on either hand.”
[…]

“Bound by a sovereign strip, we lie,
Watch yellow, wish for the wind to blow away
The strata of the shore and leave red rock;
But wishes breed not, neither
Can we fend off the rock arrival,
Lie watching yellow until the golden weather
Breaks, O my heart’s blood, like a heart and hill.”

In Thomas’ ‘We Lying by Seasand’, the recurrent reference to two lovers “watching yellow” is a point of curiosity. While the colour ‘yellow’ could be a stand-in for the setting sun, and as such, be an example of metonymy, the colour itself is strongly associated with ideas of ageing, withering and decay.

Old yellow is not a pleasant shade, and begs the question as to what the poet is implying about the state of the relationship portrayed. Is it a ‘yellowing’ relationship in that the couple have been together for a long time, or are we looking at a relationship that has lost its lustre and vitality, and is therefore on the rocks (“Can we fend off the rock arrival”)?

Underneath the romantic tableaux vivant, perhaps there lies a deeper level of anxiety that’s bubbling within.

But anyway, ‘yellow’ here is a metonym for the setting sun, because the colour yellow is a physical quality of sunshine.

 

Synecdoche in ‘In an Artist’s Studio’, Christina Rossetti

One face looks out from all his canvases,
One selfsame figure sits or walks or leans:
We found her hidden just behind those screens,
That mirror gave back all her loveliness.
A queen in opal or in ruby dress,
A nameless girl in freshest summer-greens,
A saint, an angel – every canvas means
The same one meaning, neither more or less.
He feeds upon her face by day and night,
And she with true kind eyes looks back him,…”

We’ve probably heard of the saying, ‘She’s just a pretty face’. In Rossetti’s poem ‘In an Artist’s Studio’, the artist’s rendering of a woman, beautiful as it may be, is semantically ‘reduced’ into separate body parts (“one face”, “one selfsame figure”, “he feeds upon her face”) and alluded to in archetypal generalities (“a queen”, “a nameless girl”, “a saint”, “an angel”).

The use of a ‘face’ or a ‘figure’ as substitute for the girl’s entirety is clearly an example of synecdoche, because both the face and the figure are but physical parts of the girl. As for whether we’re looking at a case of female objectification by the ‘male gaze’ is, depending on which interpretative school you subscribe to, a moot point (although I feel the implication to be quite firmly in the affirmative).

Regardless, the point is: face / figure are synecdoches for the girl entire.

A final note on grammar…

By the way, don’t forget: the singular form for metonymy is a metonym (not “a metonymy”), but the singular form for synecdoche is the same as its general term – a synecdoche. 

If this remains confusing, comment below or message me directly here.

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