Synecdoche (// sin-NEK-də-kee) is a type of metonymy: it is a figure of speech in which a term for a part of something is used to refer to the whole (pars pro toto), or vice versa (totum pro parte). The term comes from ancient Greek συνεκδοχή.[a]
Examples in common English use are suits for businessmen, wheels for car, and boots for soldiers. The use of government buildings to refer to their occupants is metonymy and sometimes also synecdoche. "The Pentagon" for the United States Department of Defense can be considered synecdoche, because the building can be considered part of the bureaucracy. Similarly, "The White House" is also an instance of synecdoche since it is widely used to signify the office of the U.S. president. In the same way, using "Number 10" to mean "the Office of the Prime Minister" (of the United Kingdom) is a synecdoche. Similarly, the names of capital cities referring to the sovereign states they govern follows this pattern.
Synecdoche (and thus metonymy) is distinct from metaphor, although in the past, it was considered to be a sub-species of metaphor, intending metaphor as a type of conceptual substitution (as Quintilian does in Institutio oratoria Book VIII). In Lanham's Handlist of Rhetorical Terms, the three terms possess somewhat restrictive definitions in tune with their etymologies from Greek:
Synecdoche is often used as a type of personification by attaching a human aspect to a nonhuman thing. It is used in reference to political relations, including "having a footing", to mean a country or organization is in a position to act, or "the wrong hands", to describe opposing groups, usually in the context of military power.
The two main types of synecdoche are microcosm and macrocosm. A microcosm uses a part of something to refer to the entirety. An example of this is saying "I need a hand" with a project, but needing the entire person. A macrocosm is the opposite, using the name of the entire structure of something to refer to a small part. An example of this is saying "the world" while referring to a certain country or part of the planet. The figure of speech is divided into the image (what the speaker uses to refer to something) and the subject (what is referred to).
In politics, the residence or location of an executive can be used to represent the office itself. For example, "the White House" can mean the Executive Office of the President of the United States; "Buckingham Palace" can mean the crown of the United Kingdom; "the Sublime Porte" can mean the Ottoman Empire; and "the Kremlin" can mean the government of Russia. The Élysée Palace might indicate the President of the French Republic.
Sonnets and other forms of love poetry frequently use synecdoches to characterize the beloved in terms of individual body parts rather than a coherent whole. This practice is especially common in the Petrarchan sonnet, where the idealised beloved is often described part by part, head-to-toe.
Synecdoche is also popular in advertising. Since synecdoche uses a part to represent a whole, its use requires the audience to make associations and "fill in the gaps", engaging with the ad by thinking about the product. Moreover, catching the attention of an audience with advertising is often referred to by advertisers with the synedoche "getting eyeballs". Synecdoche is common in spoken English, especially in reference to sports. The names of cities are used as shorthand for their sports teams to describe events and their outcomes, such as "Denver won Monday's game", while accuracy would require a sports team from the city won the game.
Kenneth Burke (1945), an American literary theorist, declared that in rhetoric, the four master tropes, or figures of speech, are metaphor, metonymy, synecdoche, and irony. Burke's primary concern with these four master tropes is more than simply their figurative usage, but includes their role in the discovery and description of the truth. He described synecdoche as "part of the whole, whole for the part, container for the contained, sign for the thing signified, material for the thing made… cause for the effect, effect for the cause, genus for the species, species for the genus". In addition, Burke suggests synecdoche patterns can include reversible pairs such as disease-cure. Burke proclaimed the noblest synecdoche is found in the description of "microcosm and macrocosm" since microcosm is related to macrocosm as part to the whole, and either the whole can represent the part or the part can represent the whole". Burke compares synecdoche with the concept of "representation", especially in the political sense in which elected representatives stand in pars pro toto for their electorate.