Rhetorical devices enrich writing, far beyond dull adjectives and even more questionable adverbs. But few people have studied rhetoric, even though they may use rhetoric every day in both writing and real-life conversation. I’m going to run through the rhetorical dictionary and discuss some juicy terminology in an occasional series of posts. It should be of interest, and it might even inspire you to use some of these devices in your own work. But like they say on alcohol adverts, use rhetoric sensibly. Don’t overdo it, or it will be your readers getting the headache!
Today’s term: synecdoche
A synecdoche is the device of using part of something to describe the whole, or the opposite, the whole of something to describe merely part. It differs from the similar metonymy, with which it is often confused (metonymy being the substitution of a related object for the word in question, often used to describe power or authority like “the Crown”, or “the White House” instead of their respective figureheads).
Shakespeare was an avid user of synecdoche. Mark Anthony says, “Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears”. He didn’t actually want people to mutilate themselves, he just wanted their attention. Macbeth tells his servant, the unfortunate bearer of bad news in Act V, to “take thy face hence”. This obviously means “get out”, but the substitution of “face” for the individual as whole references Macbeth’s guilt, his need to hide, his desire to avoid observation.
More modern examples of synecdoche? In a military context “boots on the ground” means the physical deployment of infantry. “Bums on seats” means filling the cinema or theatre; it doesn’t mean throwing open the doors to dissolute hobos. “Wheels”, as in “I got me some new wheels”, is a substitute for a car. It could also be a substitute for a motorbike, or a bicycle, or a ride-on lawnmower; anything, in fact, with wheels, funnily enough. But careful. “I got me a new ride” is not a synecdoche. That’s a metonymy. A “ride” isn’t part of the vehicle. It’s a related metaphor for the vehicle.