This post is third in a series about figurative language. The first post in the series discussed simile, metaphor, and symbolism. Last week, we explored personification and zoomorphism. Today, we will drive on to the realm of some lesser-known cousins, synecdoche and metonymy.
A subset of metaphor, synecdoche refers to a part of an object when the whole is meant. Sometimes, synecdoche functions in the reverse, referring to a whole when the intended meaning is a part of that whole only.
Thirty hands scribbled furiously.
Although of course they are people who are scribbling, referring only to the hands emphasizes the action, giving a sense that the people are wholly invested in their scribbling. There’s a sense of the disembodied, of a depersonalization. In a particular context, this could be exactly the effect we desire.
I watched Andy at the foot of the tree, grinning as he worked, pressing the saw forward into the trunk. And faster than I thought it would come, with the saw's last toothy whine, the branch that bore that perfect apple fell to earth.
In this example, it is the whole tree that is being cut down. The character’s singular focus on the branch that contained the apple is thus a synecdoche. Here, we might say that the perfect apple symbolizes the majesty of the tree. Or the character’s focus on it to the detriment of the tree as a whole suggests some deeper motive, or some aspect of character.
A long line of feet marches on into the dark, of small and large, and old and young, clad glittering or rough with callous, light and dark, painted, bare.
As with the first example in this section, the synecdoche here uses a body part to refer to whole people. I think the interesting thing that distinguishes this example is the strange effect of both de-emphasizing the individuality of each person (it is harder to identify a person by their feet than, say, by their face), yet then the actual diversity the feet do betoken becomes heightened. It’s an interesting dual effect that, I think, in the end, highlights various social identities, categories of people as opposed to individual differences.
I think the tricky thing about synecdoche, the more I think about it, is its, after all, strangely non-figurative nature. We say that figurative language is any kind of statement that is not literally meant, yet is that really what’s happening in these examples? The feet are indeed marching, as attached to people as they may be. The branch did fall, and hands do scribble–it is, perhaps, more a question of focus than of metaphor. Perhaps this is why synecdoches so often go unseen.
Metonymy similarly shifts the focus of a phrase away from what is truly meant. However, instead of referring to one part of the whole, metonymy focuses instead on some related thing. Metonymy might cite the tool when the user is intended, the effect when the cause is the true subject, the clothes might be mentioned, and they make the man. Let’s see a couple of examples:
A suitcase with my clothes I didn't pack. A note I cannot read, in perfect hand, there clipped under the fruit bowl. An empty house, awaiting my departure. A pain I can't yet voice clawing my gut.
In this example, the metonymy identifies effects, the cause thus implied and not directly stated. In truth, this is not so different from a show-don’t-tell exercise, yet I think it expresses something deeper too, that the narrator cannot directly state the truth. She or he is in too much pain. Only the specific effects can be enumerated. The cause, the breakup, is too raw to mention for what it is.
They sent us forty-eight flutes. What are we going to do with forty-eight flutes? We've only got three guitars. The whole concerto's going to be a woodwind-overload. And I can't go tell all those flutes they've got to go packing! They'll poke my eyes out. They're expecting work. And they're expecting to be paid. Jordan, get the agency. Find out what kind of a fiasco they're planning for us.
Here, the metonymy refers to instruments in place of their players. The effect dehumanizes, which is in keeping with the narrator’s attitude, the focus on the business of the event. I think too, what’s interesting, is that metonymies like this are used all the time in the common parlance of an orchestra. The third violin, first chair, brass and woodwinds–yet ultimately, these are metonymies. Language is an interesting thing.
Metonymy and synecdoche are useful in their redirecting of focus. If one of our goals as writers is to show the reality of the world in new ways, then focus must always be one of our key tools. Look here, we say. Check this other way of seeing. Synecdoche and metonymy can help us do this, subtly, sometimes unseen, and the synecdoches and metonymies that abound in our colloquial expressions, from orchestra to government to political movements like the Yellow Vests–they point to the truth that these devices are embedded already in our language. Figurative language or not, let’s keep using them. Let’s keep exploring.
Thanks for stopping by. Best wishes for the week ahead!