Sunday, October 17, 2010


Neighborhood synecdoche watch

A colleague and I recently came across the following sign:

This neighborhood reports suspicious activity.

Ha, ha, my colleague said, I don’t think the neighborhood does any such thing. The people in it may, but not the neighborhood.

Ah, me. Folks who laugh at such things think they’re so clever, don’t they.

Only, they’re not: such things are using a common and acceptable (and rather interesting, if you ask me) figure of speech called synecdoche (pronounced syn-EK-duh-kee) or metonymy (meh-TAH-nim-ee)... you get the challenge of discerning the difference between the two, and deciding which one is operative in this case.

We see these in use all the time. Right lane must turn right. (Yes, it’s the traffic that turns, not the lane itself.) The White House said today that.... (The White House is a building, and says nothing; a spokesperson for the U.S. President is who did the saying.)

If they make you laugh, that’s great: the world needs more joviality. Just don’t be so jovial as to think there’s anything wrong with these locutions.

If you do, I’ll attack you here, because, you know, the pen is mightier than the sword (and bits on the Internet are the mightiest of all).


D. said...

Funny, but I think there's a good chance that you and I have snickered about such phrases on more than one occasion, especially when we notice them in the press.

If I use the guidelines here:, I'd have to consider it a synecdoche.

Brent said...

I find it interesting that "synecdoche" is a two-way definition: "substituting a more inclusive term for a less inclusive one or vice versa". I would have expected that there would be two antonyms in play here. At least "metonymy" seems to be one-way: "substituting the name of an attribute or feature for the name of the thing itself (as in `they counted heads')".

Are there other interesting terms, like synecdoche, that are two-way?

Nathaniel Borenstein said...

One of my favorite Bill Safire stories tells how he corrected the pronunciation of the once and future governor of California when the subject of synechdoche came up:

So while it may correctly be pronounced sih-NEK-duh-KEY, one could say that the California Governor's mansion pronounces it SIN-ec-DOACH.

HRH said...

Calling “This neighborhood reports suspicious activity”, a synecdoche is more appropriate than metonymy. The neighborhood is the general, and the one or more individuals in it who do the reporting are the part. Here they have substituted the whole for the part. Please don’t hold me to this :-)