Difference between Metonymy and Synecdoche

By: | Updated: Dec-21, 2017
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These literary devices are similar as both make use of a word or a phrase to represent another. However, there are a few slight differences that make metonymy distinct from synecdoche. To help you better understand these terms, this article aims to highlight these differences.

Summary Table

Metonymy Synecdoche
Uses a related, new name to refer to another concept or name but is not part of its whole and not a whole of its parts Uses a part of a greater whole to refer a new idea or name, or a greater whole in reference to a smaller part
A kind of figurative speech A figure of speech and a specific kind of metonymy
Kremlin = Russia

the White House = the US

nice wheels = nice car

boots on the ground = soldiers


White House
The White House is a metonym for the US federal government

Metonymy is used in figurative speech where the name of a concept or thing is interchanged with a metonym, which is a word or a phrase associated with the name being substituted. It comes from the Greek word metônymía, which means “a change of name.” Metonymy can be seen in literary works and everyday speech. Metonymy is also commonly used in rhetoric speech and poetry.

For instance, the titles “king” and “queen” are sometimes replaced by the phrase “the crown” simply because it symbolizes the royal authority kings and queens wield. In New York, the name “Wall Street” metonymically represents the whole US financial and corporate banking system. The phrase “The pen is mightier than the sword” is also a good example of metonymy. The word “pen” is a metonym of the written word, while the word “sword” symbolizes fighting. The famous line from Shakespeare’s “Julius Caesar” says, “Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears.” This uses the word “ears” instead of “listen” or “pay attention.” The practice of mentioning a country’s capital (i.e. in news reporting) instead of the name of the country itself is also common. For example, “Washington D.C.” is to the US as “Tokyo” is to Japan.

deployed soldiers
“Boots on the ground”: a synecdoche used in reference to deployed soldiers

Synecdoche, (pronounced as si-NEK-duh-kee) which also means “simultaneous understanding” in Greek, is a literary technique where a whole thing or idea is represented by its part, or conversely, a greater whole is used in reference to a small part. When someone says “nice wheels”, the speaker is referring to the car, and not the set of wheels of the vehicle. The word “the law” sometimes applies specifically to police officers. A synecdoche is also used to bring a level of personification by introducing a human element into a non-human concept. Having a “footprint” in a certain geographical area is a figurative way of saying an entity as having a presence in that location. The term “hand” sometimes refer to a staff of helpers. The expression “bread and butter” also means livelihood, and “boots on the ground” refers to soldiers, and are all synecdoches.

There are instances when a synecdoche would seem to point to a new thing when it also forms a part of something, particularly when referring to government buildings. “The Pentagon” is another name for the US Department of Defense, which is headquartered in the Pentagon building.

Metonymy vs Synecdoche

So what’s the difference between metonymy and synecdoche? Such literary devices make use of a word or a phrase to represent something else. However, metonymy is used to give an original idea or concept a new name or term which is related in meaning to the word that is being represented. Thus, a metonym of a word is often a proper noun. Synecdoche, on the other hand, takes a part of a thing to represent the original word or phrase and vice versa.

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