Hyperbole, Metonymy, and Synecdoche: A Brief Guide to Figures of Speech, Written by an English Instructor
As noted in the earlier hub from this short series, figurative language-- otherwise known as figures of speech-- describes a variety of techniques used by authors to give words meaning beyond their usual, literal definitions. Some common examples of figures of speech taught in high school and college English classes are simile, metaphor, and personification. More advanced classes might begin to discuss other figures, notably hyperbole, metonymy, and synecdoche. In this article, I'll give you an explanation of these last three figures, followed by annotated examples of each term in action.
Hyperbole can most easily be described as exaggeration and is commonly used to emphasize important points. For example, if you just finished carting a backpack full of books up the stairs, you might say "That bag weighed a ton!" Although you're probably not actually trying to convince anyone that you literally carried 2,000 pounds of books up the steps, saying that your burden weighed "a ton" emphasizes heaviness and difficulty better than if you had said, "That bag weighed forty pounds!"
1) "Your mother is so fat, when she sits around the house, she sits AROUND the house." - Common joke
"Yo mama" jokes commonly use hyperbole to comic effect, emphasizing to a ridiculous degree how fat, old, ugly, stupid, or promiscuous the listener's mother supposedly is. It's pretty obvious that the listener's mother is unlikely to literally fill multiple chairs, rooms, etc. when she sits, but saying so takes the insult to a higher level and is more imaginative and therefore, amusing, than simply saying, "Your mother is fat."
2) "It's a slow burg-- I spent a couple of weeks there one day." - Carl Sandburg, "The People, Yes"
In this example, the speaker emphasizes the boredom he felt in a small town by saying that "I spent a couple of weeks there one day [emphasis mine]," something that is impossible to actually do. The statement is a creative way of showing how slowly time seemed to pass for the speaker, and like the first example, helps to create amusement.
Metonymy is a slightly more difficult term to explain. It is a figure of speech in which a thing is referred to not by its own name, but by the name of something closely related to it. This idea can best be clarified through a couple of examples.
1) "The White House is responsible for the current economic crisis" - Possible political opinion (Disclaimer: I'm not really trying to make a political statement here; this is just an example.)
In this statement, the speaker is most likely blaming "the current economic crisis" on the President and possibly his staff, not the iconic building in which they are housed. Here, "the White House" becomes shorthand for the executive branch of government. This is different from a metaphor, because the White House and the President are actually quite clearly connected. If the speaker had instead said "Those rats in the White House are responsible for the economic crisis," then "those rats" would be considered a metaphor, since actual "rats" and White House staff are not really connected in any way.
2) "I got rear-ended by a pick-up truck." - Common expression
When the speaker says that "I got rear-ended," she most likely means that her car got rear-ended. Here, the driver who was inside the car at the time, and therefore closely related to it, substitutes "I" for "my car," a clear example of metonymy.
Synecdoche (pronounced "SIN-ECK-DOH-KEE") is another less commonly taught figure of speech. It is a device used to describe a whole object by naming only one of its parts.
1) "That's a nice set of wheels!" - Common expression
This is one of the simplest commons examples there is. The speaker of course means to compliment someone on a car, not just a "set of wheels." However, the whole car is referred to by one of its parts, the wheels.
2) "Friends, Romans, Countrymen, lend me your ears." - Shakespeare's Julius Caesar
In this famous literary example, Marc Antony begins his funeral oration for Caesar by asking his fellow Romans to listen to him. He does not literally mean that they should they should remove their ears so that he can borrow them; instead, he uses "ears," part of the listening process, to represent what he really wants: their attention.
The video below shows a speech by Robin Hood in Mel Brooks's 1993 movie Men in Tights, which spoofs Antony's oration by showing exactly what he didn't mean when he said, "Lend me your ears." Apparently, Robin's audience does not understand synecdoche.
3) "Aragorn: You have my sword.
Legolas: And you have my bow.
Gimli: And my axe." - Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring, directed by Peter Jackson
These lines quoted from the scene in which the hero Frodo's companions offer their protection and assistance in his upcoming quest are also a great example of synecdoche. Aragorn, Legolas, and Gimli are not saying, "Take our weapons, and have fun on your dangerous journey; we'll just stay here and play Scrabble." Instead, they are offering to go along with Frodo. Therefore, the sword, the bow, and the axe are used to represent the presence and protection of the men who will be carrying them.