Metonymy vs. Synecdoche: What’s the Difference?

Metonymy and synecdoche are two related figures of speech in which one thing is meant to represent another. 

Metonymy is when we talk about something by referring to something related to it — for example, when we say “the White House” to mean “the president and their administration/staff.” 

Synecdoche is a type of metonymy that occurs when we use a part of something to refer to the whole. For example, we may say “We have many mouths to feed,” by which we mean we have many people to feed. Mouths are a part of people, and therefore this is synecdoche.

Read on to learn more about these figures of speech and examples of both.


Metonymy (meh-TOHN-ih-mee)

According to Merriam-Webster’s online dictionary, metonymy is “a figure of speech consisting of the use of the name of one thing for that of another of which it is an attribute or with which it is associated.”

Whew. That sounds tricky, but it’s quite simple: A metonym is a phrase in which something refers to a thing it’s related to or associated with. For example, we might use the phrase “the Crown” to refer to a king or queen or their office. A crown is a thing associated with kings and queens, and so we call this usage metonymy.

Consider the following sentence, which could easily crop up in a news story: 

“The princess’s reckless behavior reflects poorly on the Crown.”

In this sentence, the writer doesn’t literally mean the crown, but the office of the monarchy. 

Or consider this example:

“The White House issued an executive order today.”

The White House, of course, is just a building, but metaphorically, or metonymically, we can use the phrase “the White House” to refer to the occupants of said building—namely the president and his staff.

Here’s another example of metonymy:

“The city council was made up mostly of graybeards.”

Here, graybeards means old men, who are associated with gray beards—whether they have them or not.

We also use bread to mean food, as in this example:

“My father worked hard to put bread on the table.”

Of course, we don’t mean that only bread was on the table, but bread is associated with food in general.

Furthermore, we use the phrase the press to refer to journalists—press being a reference to the printing press, something associated with journalism.


Synecdoche (sin-EK-doh-kee)

According to Merriam-Webster’s online dictionary, synecdoche is “a figure of speech by which a part is put for the whole.”

In synecdoche, the term or phrase is not just related to the thing it represents but is actually a part of it.

Consider the use of wheels to mean car. If we were complimenting someone’s car, we might say, “Hey man, nice wheels.” In this example, wheels are a part of the whole—the car—and is a phrase we use to represent the whole.

Or imagine you’re having your new yard landscaped, and you’ve hired a group of people to help you. You might say, “I’ve hired many hands,” in which hands refers to workers.

Another synecdoche example is when we say, “There are many mouths to feed,” in which mouths means people.

Metonymy and Synecdoche Etymology

Like a number of English words, metonymy and synecdoche both have Greek origins. 

Synecdoche: Syn means “with, along with” and ekdochē means “sense, interpretation.”

Metonymy: Metonymy combines meta, which means “along, with” with onymon, which means “name, word.”

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