"What is a Synecdoche?" A Guide for English Students and Teachers

 View the full series: The Oregon State Guide to English Literary Terms

What is Synecdoche? Transcript

By Peter Betjemann

To understand synecdoche, you need to first understand the concepts of metaphor and metonymy. If you don’t have a solid grasp of metaphor and metonymy, videos on both of those concepts are available through the Oregon State guide to literary terms.

Metaphor, metonymy, and synecdoche are all kinds of figurative language that use one thing to help us understand something else. A metonym, as you know, replaces something you want to characterize with something else associated with it. A synecdoche is a kind of metonym, but the associated thing is actually a component part, a piece, of whatever you are characterizing. When we talk about getting “boots on the ground,” we’re using a synecdoche: by boots, we mean soldiers. But boots are part of the soldiers (at least when they are dressed), so this expression is really a synecdoche rather than just a metonym. The super-classic example of synecdoche, that you’ll find on every website, is “fifty keels plowed the deep.” Fifty ships sailing on the ocean are represented by their keels, a component part of the vessel thus standing for the whole.

The poet Allen Ginsberg was a great lover of synecdoche. Two examples are afforded by his poem “A Supermarket in California,” and understanding these examples helps us interpret Ginsberg’s themes. In the poem, the narrator fantasizes about following the nineteenth-century poet Walt Whitman around a mid twentieth-century grocery story. He overhears Whitman ask the grocer, in the meat section, “who killed the pork chops?”  That’s a synecdoche – it was of course the pig, not the pork chop, that was killed; the pork chop is the fragmented part that stands for the whole.

A few lines later, the narrator addresses Whitman as his “dear father, greybeard, lonely old courage teacher.” “Greybeard,” here, is also a synecdoche. Ginsberg affectionately invokes Whitman’s famous beard to stand for the whole man and to indicate how Whitman’s wise example gives him courage.

How can tracking Ginsberg’s use of synecdoche help us interpret the poem? This is a verse in which the narrator struggles with feelings of connection and disconnection – he feels connected to Whitman, but isn’t sure that Whitman’s optimistic vision of society applies to the dismantled post-World-War-II culture in which Ginsberg lives. The first synecdoche about the pork chops, is horrifying and a little gross – it’s meant to shock, and to capture a world in which we think only in terms of cut-up commodities that we purchase (“pork chops”). The second synecdoche does the opposite – it creates an affectionate, tender, and reverential connection between Ginsberg and Whitman by referring to the earlier poet as Ginsberg’s “greybeard,” his wise and older source of inspiration.

Across “A Supermarket in California,” then, synecdoche is used to establish both moods of the poem – that of fragmentation and that of connectivity. To see the synecdoche is not just to see the clever use of a particularly kind of literary language, but to encounter the central themes of the poem as a whole.

Further Resources for Teachers:

In John Steinbeck's novel Of Mice and Men, Slim calls the people who work on the farm "the hands." Students will likely be familiar with this synecdoche, but they may benefit from exploring how this synecdoche conveys Slim's tone--the attitude that he takes towards these workers.  What does it mean to call people "hands?"  What does it emphasize and what does it de-emphasize? This activity may help students to understand the power of synecdoches to both celebrate and denigrate in ways that resonate with our video.