Definition & Examples of Synecdoche

Synecdoche is a figure of speechOpens in new window which consists when the name of the whole is put for a part, or the name of a part for the whole; the genus for a species, or a species for the genus; the singular number for the plural, or the plural for the singular; or a general name for a particular under that general, or a particular for the general.

Synecdoche, also known as “intellectio,” “subintellectio,” “pars pro toto intelleccion,” “figure of quick conceite”, is of the origin of Greek, literarlly “an act of taking together.”

Observations and Examples

1.  The synecdoche puts the whole for a part.

Examples include:
  • “Now the year [i.e., summer] is beautiful.”
  • When the sea may be put for the waves of the sea.
  • When man is used to signify the soul or body of a man, as when it’s rendered in Luke xvi.23 (Lazarus, said to be in Abraham’s bosom; and in Gen. iii. 19, “Till thou return to the ground,” that is, till thy body return to the ground.) And sometimes we mention, intending only the body, and sometimes only the soul, that man is mortal, or that he is immortal.

2.  The Synecdoche puts a part for the whole.

Examples include:
  • The head shall signify the man, the pole the heavens, the point the sword, the winter the whole year, and the general shall include both himself and his army.
  • Instances of this kind abounds in Scripture:
  • In Isa. Vii.2: “the tribe of Ephraim is put for the whole people of Israel, and
  • Likewise in, Matt. Viii. 8.: the Centurion tells our Lord, that he was not worthy that he should come “under his roof,” that is, into his house.

3.  Synecdoche puts the general name for a particular of the same kind:

See examples below:

Put up your weapon, that is, your sword. So a bird is used by Virgil for an eagle:

  •  The bird, ungrasping his fiece talons, drops
    His prey into the flood …
  •  In Mark xvi. 15, Our Lord command his Apostles to “go into all the world, and preach the gospel to every creature,” that is, to all mankind.

4.  Synecdoche may also take a particular name for a general.

Examples include:
    The Cretan sea signifies in Horace the sea in general
  • I, in th muses favour bless’d,
    Neither with grief nor fear depress’d,
    Will bid the vagrant winds convey
    Those troublers to the Cretan sea.
  • In Psalm xlvi.9: the Almighty is said to “break the bow, and cut the spear in sunder, and to burn the chariot in the fire; that is, God destroys all the weapons of war, and blesses the world with peace.
  • In Dan. Xii. 14. By many we are to understand all. “Many of them that sleep in the dust shall awake, some to everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting contempt.”
  • It may be observed further, that to the Synecdoche the usage of a certain number for an uncertain is to be ascribed:
  • ‘Achilles’ wide-destroying wrath that pour’d
    Ten thousand woes on Greece, O Goddess, sing.’
  • To the same trope we may refer the liberty of using the plural number for the singular, and the singular number for the plural; as when Cicero tells Brutus,
  • “We misled the People, and gained the reputation of Orators”, when he intends only himself;
  • and when, on the contrary, Livy often says:
  • “that the Roman was Conqueror in the battle,” whereas he means that the Romans were Conquerors.
Further Readings:
Thomas Gibbons, Rhetoric; Or, A View of Its Principal Tropes and Figures, in Their Origin [...] | SynecdocheOpens in new window
Rhetorica ad Herennium 4.33.44-45 (“intellection”); Quintilian 8.6.19-22; Trebizond 61r (“intellection”); Susenbrotus (1540) (“synecdoche,” “intellectio,” p. 7-8); Sherry (1550) (“synecdoche,” “intellectio,” “intelleccion,” p. 42); Peacham (1577) C3r; Fraunce (1588) 1.8-11; Puttenham (1589) 196, 205 (“synecdoche,” “figure of quick conceite”); Day 1599 78; Hoskins 1599 11; Melanchthon (1531) b1r