Introduction

We continue our look at biblical figures of speech involving substitution. In our previous post, we considered metonymy, a figure of speech in which a certain word or expression is substituted for the related thing it is intended to suggest. Today we consider the figure known as synecdoche.

Synecdoche

Pronunciation: \ sə-ˈnek-də-ˌkē \

Synecdoche is a figure of speech in which: (a) the part stands for the whole, or the whole stands for the part; (b) the species stands for the genus, or the genus stands for the species; or (c) the specific stands for the general, or the general stands for the specific. Such relationships mean, for example, that synecdoche may refer to an object by the material it is made from, or it may refer to the contents of a container by the name of that container, etc.

General Examples

•  All hands on deck = all people on deck (hands being one part of the whole person).

•  I bought new wheels = I bought a new car (wheels being one component of the whole car).

•  Cool threads, dude = nice clothing, sir (threads being the material from which clothing is made).

•  The farmer had three head of cattle = had three whole cattle (head referring to part of the whole).

•  We will not put boots on the ground in that country = soldiers (boots being one part of a soldier).

•  “Lend me your ear” = give me your attention (ear being one part of a person’s listening system).

•  I’ll buy it with plastic = I’ll buy it with a credit card (plastic being the material of the credit card).

•  He was hitting the bottle again = he was drinking again (bottle being the container of the alcohol).

•  Philadelphia won tonight = the Phillies won tonight (Phillies being the ball team in Philadelphia).

•  Nobody goes there anymore; the place is too crowded = nobody new goes (whole for the part).

Biblical Examples

•  “Their feet run to evil” (Prov 1:16) = their whole person (body and mind) rushes to do evil.

•  “. . . a land flowing with milk and honey” (Exod 3:8b, 17b) = containing all luxurious foods.

•  “I do not trust in my bow; my sword does not bring me victory” (Ps 44:6) = any of my weapons.

•  “Saul said nothing that day” (1 Sam 20:26a) = said nothing specifically about David that day.

•  “Preach the gospel to every creature” (Mark 16:15b) = to all human beings.

•  “Give us this day our daily bread” (Matt. 6:11) = all of today’s needed food.

•  “Look how the whole world has gone after him” (John 12:19) = many people in the region.

Additional Note

Synecdoche is often confused with metonymy. When trying to determine if a figure of speech is a one or the other, ask: (a) Is the word, phrase, object, or person physically attached to a larger object or person—or vice versa? (b) Is the word, phrase, object, or person part of the makeup of something larger—or vice versa? If the answer to either of these questions is “yes,” then the figure of speech is likely a synecdoche, not a metonymy.

Additional Resources

The definition at Merriam-Webster.com for synecdoche.

An audio pronunciation guide for the word synecdoche.

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