Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears;
I come to bury Caesar, not to praise him.
The evil that men do lives after them;
The good is oft interred with their bones;
So let it be with Caesar.
– Julius Caesar, Act III, Scene II
If you were to take these words of Mark Antony literally, you might think that he wants people to cut off their ears so he can use them for a while. Of course, it’s not what Shakespeare, that master of words, meant by this phrase. It’s a figure of speech, a use of words known as metonymy (pronounced “meh-TAH-nuh-mee”), in which naming something actually refers to its function or what it contains. In other words, Mark Antony wants people to listen to him.
You’ve probably heard metonymy being used on the evening news broadcasts, when reporters talk about the latest statements given by “the White House” or “#10 Downing Street.” Those reporters haven’t been listening to the brick-and-mortar buildings, but to people inside them who work to keep the respective governments of the United States and Great Britain functioning. You’ve used it yourself if you’ve ever talked about “that delicious dish” you ate at the French restaurant in the center of town. You didn’t eat the plate (we hope!), but what it contained.
Synecdoche (“sih-NECK-duh-kee”) is a similar form of wordplay; in fact, it’s often classified as a type of metonymy. In this variation, the term for one small part of something is used to refer to the whole thing. When the ship’s captain shouts, “All hands on deck!” he’s not expecting a scuttling crowd of disembodied hands crawling towards him on their fingers. He’s expecting that the sailors connected to those hands will assemble in front of him. When you brag about the “new set of wheels” you just bought, your friends automatically assume that the rest of the car was included.
Figures of speech – metaphor and simile, synecdoche and metonymy, alliteration and hyperbole – all add interest and richness to your writing and your speech. Keep an eye out for these rhetorical devices when you’re reading, and think about how to use vocabulary to recreate them. Then read your creations to family and friends – we’re sure they’ll be all ears.
For a humorous look at metonymy, read James Thurber’s “Here Lies Miss Groby.”