Luke Taylor

Grammar Grater®

with Luke Taylor


Episode 57: Representin'

This week's topic is a figure of speech known as synecdoche. Gordon Jarvie, in the Bloomsbury Grammar Guide, defines synecdoche as "the figure of speech that puts the part for the whole or the whole for the part."

One way to understand synecdoche is to look at the way we use the word "tarmac." According to the Oxford English Dictionary, "tarmac" is a registered trademark for a mixed material used for making roads. The OED also says that "the tarmac" is a colloquialism for an airfield or runway.

Mary Karlsson, a Minnesota-based civil engineer, told me that making roads with tarmac was developed by Scottish engineer John McAdam in the 1800s, and it involves creating layers of progressively smaller stone compacted together to form a hard surface for driving. These layers are held together with tar or creosote, hence the name "tar macadam." That name was shortened to "tarmac."

By synecdoche, the word "tarmac" has come to be the commonly used and understood name for the paved runways around airports. The part—that is, tarmac, the material the runways are made of—represents the whole. Hence, "tarmac" is the word we use for the place where planes taxi and dock at airports. As an example of this usage, the Oxford English Dictionary cites this passage from Jonathan Raban's 1979 book, Arabia Through the Looking Glass:
People in gold-trimmed robes stepped off airplanes and were embraced by similarly robed officials who stood in waiting on the tarmac.

The funny thing is, most airport runways aren't even made of tarmac anymore. They're concrete.

Another example of synecdoche from everyday life occurs in expressions like this:
We traveled from New York to Boston by rail.

Where "rail," the part, represents the entire mode of train transport, the whole. But it's important to note that synecdoche doesn't just happen in travel-related contexts.

Because synecdoche can be a fairly tricky topic to grasp, we at Grammar Grater thought it might be helpful to discuss the ways synecdoche exists in the visual realm. That's why we brought in St. Paul visual artist Randall Hanson to talk about it.

Hanson says synecdoche is used all the time in motion pictures to add visual interest to a shot that would otherwise be rather dull. For example, Hanson says that instead of filmmakers showing a full shot of a car starting to drive away when the light turns green, they'll show a close-up on a tire spinning and squealing, with rubber smoking. "This tiny portion of the car in the shot is meant to represent the whole idea of what is going on," Hanson says, "and it's a lot more interesting to watch."

Another example Hanson gives is the blood-down-the-drain scene from Alfred Hitchcock's classic film, Psycho. "You don't need to see the murder to know what is going on," Hanson says, "and that wasn't even in color!"

Beyond cinema, Hanson describes several examples of synecdoche that are used in photography and graphic design. "In a view of some corner of the Chrysler Building, you not only represent the structure as a whole, but in such a well-known example, perhaps even the entire Art Deco genre," he says. "It's amazing that an image like that could stand for an entire era of artistic development. Same probably goes for a Tiffany Lamp, or a Frank Lloyd Wright window. These icons represent Art Nouveau and Prairie School architecture, respectively."

While those are examples of synecdoche where a part represents a whole, it's important to discuss instances of synecdoche where a whole represents a part. Hanson says that synecdoche is often used next to television news anchors to give visual impact to a story. "For instance, an image of the Earth is often used to represent nature or the environment," he explains, "or even an environmental topic such as recycling."

One need only glance at newspapers, magazines or even product packaging to see that using an image of the Earth to represent environmental topics is indeed a popular form of synecdoche.

Sources: Bloomsbury Grammar Guide by Gordon Jarvie; Oxford English Dictionary.

Related Links: Tarmac, Ltd.; Studio Hanson

Music from this Episode: "Baby's Got Sauce" by by G. Love and Special Sauce; "All of Me" by Willie Nelson.

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