Friday, June 01, 2012

metonymy and synecdoche

I'm unconvinced that the concepts of metonymy and synecdoche are as well-defined as some eggheads say they are. This post on the subject, by an obviously well-meaning Brit, doesn't do much to convince me otherwise.

If I understand correctly, synecdoche (sih-NEK-duh-kee) is a technique in which a (physical) part comes to stand for a whole, or vice versa. Example:

Gitcher ass over here!

In the above imperative, "(your) ass" is a (physical) part that represents the entire (physical) person.

Metonymy (meh-TAH-nuh-mee), meanwhile, involves using a symbol or other indirectly related attribute to represent a person, object, or activity. The above-linked post says this:

Metonymy is similar, but uses something more generally or loosely associated with a concept to stand in for it. When Americans speak of the Oval Office, for example, they are really referring to the activity within it, the position or function of the President. It’s a linked term, and so a metonym. British writers refer similarly to the Crown, when they’re really discussing the powers, authority and responsibilities of the monarchy, which [are] symbolised by the crown. (Emphasis added.)

Sounds pretty authoritative, right? But when I turn to Dictionary.com, I find this when I look up metonymy:

Compare synecdoche the substitution of a word referring to an attribute for the thing that is meant, as for example the use of the crown to refer to a monarch (Emphasis added.)

Was the above a reference to metonymy or to synecdoche? Because of the lack of punctuation, it's impossible to know.

Further confusing matters, the above Dictionary.com entry notes that metonymy can also refer to a part-for-the-whole representation:

a figure of speech that consists of the use of the name of one object or concept for that of another to which it is related, or of which it is a part, as “scepter” for “sovereignty,” or “the bottle” for “strong drink,” or “count heads (or noses)” for “count people.”

So... "Gitcher ass over here" (part-for-whole) is synecdoche, while "count heads" (again, part-for-whole) is metonymy...?

That's as clear as mud to me.


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