Wednesday, November 19, 2008


Okay, it's the beginning of the title of a new movie, directed by Charlie Kaufman and starring Phillip Seymour Hoffman. So I expect that avid indie film followers already know what this word means, even if they didn't a week or two ago. But I had actually come across this word in my reading a couple of days before, and hadn't been able to even make a guess at it. It came in the phrase 'synecdoche of'. I believe it was in Zoe Heller's The Believers,but won't swear to it. Nevertheless, it seems to be a mini motif, so I'm going to take a stab at it. All I can come up without help is that syn means something like 'with' or 'together'. But what the 'doche' is, I haven't a clue. I'm sure it will be transparent to all once I look it up. Here goes...

Well, this is one rambling grab bag of a word. It is in essence a substitution word. According to the free dictionary, it can mean a part standing in for the whole, the whole standing in for a part, the specific for the general or the general for the specific, and finally the material from which a thing is made.

It sounds complicated, but we do this all the time. "All hands ashore!" for example doesn't mean that the captain wants some kind of grotesque ritual of amputation. He wants the bodies that come with the hands. "I'll sic the law on you!" means I'll get some policemen to chase you down, not that the abstract institution is going to be sent round.

When you use a brand name instead of the more generic name, like Kleenex instead of tissue paper, you are using a syndecdoche. And when you get up to the check out counter and say, "I'd like to put that on plastic," the clerk likely knows very well that it's not just any piece of plastic that you propose but some very specific charge card.

As for "Synecdoche, New York", we can only guess at this point which form of synecdoche will be employed. Something stands in for something else. That would be my guess.

By the way, the word is Greek and does have a 'with' component. I can't quite get a take on the original Greek meaning, but it's something like 'to receive with' which is sometimes translated as 'simultaneous understanding'. I just read it also as 'acceptance of part of the responsibility for something.' You pronounce it si-nek-duh-kee, which, frankly, surprised me. If I think of a cynical duck, I will perhaps remember how to say it, but not, alas, what it means...


  1. If I get a chance to use the word, I'm doing it. I've never heard it or even seen it before reading it here. I like your style!
    By the way, thanks for the words of wisdom on Adrian's blog.

  2. Thanks, Greg!I just heard that the movie is quite good--it's kind of a pun on Schnectady, New York, apparently, which should help me pronounce it.

    I wish you all the best getting an agent and then getting that book out there. It's a rough road but keep going. I do think a blurb from Adrian will count for something.

    Thanks for stopping by!

  3. Definitions of the word often cite the use of national capitals or exective buildings as stand-ins for the governments that inhabit them: Washington expressed its displeasure to the Kremlin in strong terms.

    I wish the word were pronounced with the soft -ch rather than the hard. Then it would sound like a cinnamon pastry dipped in one's coffee in France.

    "Synecdoche, New York" is a godawful title.
    Detectives Beyond Borders
    "Because Murder Is More Fun Away From Home"

  4. It may be a bad title, but it looks like an interesting movie. It's the only one that's in my sites currently.

    Thanks for the further example from government. I have to admit that I was somewhat disconcerted to realize that we use synecdoches all the time without even noticing that we employ them. Language is a fascinating thing.

  5. I recommend a book called Figures of Speech by Arthur Quinn.
    Detectives Beyond Borders
    “Because Murder Is More Fun Away From Home”

  6. Duly noted. I'll try to remember to see whether we have it at the store tomorrow, amidst the retail madness. I never thought I'd be wanting to study rhetorical devices, but there you go... Life is unexpected.