Word Routes

Exploring the pathways of our lexicon

Stumbling over "Synecdoche"

It's happened again: Los Angeles Times readers are up in arms over vocabulary. Last time it was a contretemps over a letter to the editor complaining about tough words like, um, contretemps. This time it's commenters on the LA Times movie blog, "The Big Picture," who are slamming a post about the title of a forthcoming movie, Synecdoche, New York.

The movie is directed by Charlie Kaufman, the highly eccentric screenwriter behind Being John Malkovich, Adaptation, and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. Synecdoche, New York, Kaufman's directorial debut, won't be released in the United States until the fall, but Sony Picture Classics had a screening in L.A. last week, which gave critic Patrick Goldstein an opportunity to muse about the film's title on the "Big Picture" blog.

Goldstein wonders, "Can anyone pronounce the title of Charlie Kaufman's new movie?" The title of the film is clearly a play on the name of the New York city of Schenectady, which is hard enough to pronounce on its own. Schenectady happens to sound like another tongue twister, synecdoche, a figure of speech that the Visual Thesaurus defines as "substituting a more inclusive term for a less inclusive one or vice versa." The website Silva Rhetoricae elaborates: in synecdoche, a part is used to refer to the whole, like calling a car a "set of wheels," or the whole is used to refer to a part, like when Olympic commentators refer to national teams as "China" or "Australia" (obviously, not all of China or Australia is participating in the Games).

Kaufman's title is particularly apt, because not only does the movie have scenes that take place in Schenectady, it also involves a physical manifestation of synecdoche: a theater director builds a meticulous replica of New York for his play. As with Kaufman's other movies, we can expect lots of blurring between reality and artistic representation, so you might end up feeling uncertain which is the "part" and which is the "whole."

Anyway, back to the blog. Goldstein asks a studio chief about the title, and he good-naturedly responds, "If people can't pronounce the title, that simply means they'll have to spend more time talking about it." To demonstrate how hard the word is to say, Goldstein links to a video taken at the Cannes Film Festival, where the film debuted. In the video, festival-goers are quizzed about the pronunciation of synecdoche, and the results aren't pretty. (Granted, most of them appear to be speakers of other European languages.)

Then come the commenters...

"I think I first learned what a synecdoche was in the seventh grade. And I went to public school."

"Any English major worth his salt should now [sic] how to pronounce synechdoche [sic]."

"Oh please, it's not that hard to pronounce."

"You've never heard of the term "synecdoche", and you're (supposedly) writers?"

Over on Variety's blog "The Circuit," where the Cannes video first appeared, Michael Jones wasn't impressed by the tenor of the comments:

It reminds us that the great public forum that are blogs sometimes fall far short. Anyone who runs them knows that manners and intelligence yield to a kind of pseudo high-minded scolding. In blog comments, there's an easy way to be the smartest guy in the room -- by simply calling the writer an idiot.

All of this brouhaha simply over the pronunciation of synecdoche? If you're still stumped, check out the word in VT and click on the audio icon to hear it spoken by one of our all-star pronouncers. (You can compare it to the pronunciation of Schenectady while you're at it.)

Feel free to leave your opinion on synecdoche below. Visual Thesaurus commenters, of course, would never resort to "pseudo high-minded scolding"!

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Ben Zimmer is language columnist for The Wall Street Journal and former language columnist for The Boston Globe and The New York Times Magazine. He has worked as editor for American dictionaries at Oxford University Press and as a consultant to the Oxford English Dictionary. In addition to his regular "Word Routes" column here, he contributes to the group weblog Language Log. He is also the chair of the New Words Committee of the American Dialect Society. Click here to read more articles by Ben Zimmer.

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Comments from our users:

Tuesday August 12th 2008, 6:05 AM
Comment by: Raju Kalampuram
Beautiful piece of critique indeed!
But in my opinion, asking questions and expressing concerns politely in public forums shouldn't be taken as "pseudo high-minded scolding"! It should rather be taken and promoted as the ways for knowledge transfer.

It is just the writer’s perception about the readers’ comments that has to be tuned to the actual purpose of the public forums!

Comments, please!
Tuesday August 12th 2008, 9:47 AM
Comment by: Ellen M.
Raju, you must participate in some courteous forums (like VT!). Polite remarks in a public forum are always welcome, but too often absent. I don't understand the state of mind that compels a commenter to disparage other people's ideas or writing; there is nothing polite about that.

I do, however, admire writers who post online and handle critiques well. I suspect they are more widely read, in all media, because they are open to feedback, even if some of it is useless, or even ugly.

I am not afraid to admit that I was unfamiliar with "synecdoche," although I have been to Schenectady. Thanks to VT, I have a new word in my vocabulary although I'm unlikely to use it in conversation.

Does anyone know if there is a noun based on the city name of Worcester? It is my husband's Massachusetts hometown and its spelling and pronunciation pose a challenge for many. Newsweek magazine called it "Wooster" in print a few weeks ago - a sad sign of fallen editorial standards.
Tuesday August 12th 2008, 11:31 AM
Comment by: Wood F.
I had a funny revelation while reading this article. Although I was almost an English major (at Harvard no less), I don't think I ever learned what synecdoche was; and though I've seen the word in print, I've always pronounced it to myself "SIN-ek-doke." As I read this I was thinking, "Gee, that's not all that close to 'Schenectady.'" Only toward the end did it dawn on me (without resorting to the VT pronunciation), "Ohhh... it's "sin-EK-duh-kee!"" It makes the movie title much cleverer when said that way. (I hope this is correct and I'm not making an even bigger fool of myself!)

And on a totally unrelated topic -- what a mess of single- and double-quotes the above paragraph is. Does anyone else struggle with how to use them when referring to concepts, the words that represent them, and the words' pronunciations?
Tuesday August 12th 2008, 11:52 AM
Comment by: Patricia D. (Santa Clara, CA)
"Wooster" as in "Woostersheer" sauce? It's not pronounced the way it looks! And Massachusetts speakers are well known for a unique set of pronunciations. I am always charmed by the differences and uniqueness of pronunciation. Of course, in Massachusetts (a name derived from indigenous people) there are a lot of old English names. What an interesting mix!
Sometimes I long for the days long past when spelling was much more personal and vigorous. Varied spellings help transmit the sound of the language. The opposite also occurs, where the sound changes but the spelling doesn't. I wonder if unchanging spellings are literally "carved in stone" on some frequently visited monument (church, memorial, etc.)
Tuesday August 12th 2008, 12:12 PM
Comment by: Beryl S. (Schroeder, MN)
It depends, Raju, on how those comments are worded. Some of the comments listed in the essay sound a bit snobbish if not downright arrogant.
Wednesday August 13th 2008, 10:34 AM
Comment by: Raju Kalampuram
Thanks very much, Ellen and Beryl!
Wednesday August 13th 2008, 9:52 PM
Comment by: Debi (Fort Collins, CO)

I wouldn't worry about what some people are espousing. At least there are a few good elitists left;
nothing wrong with that! It takes all kinds to make a world, so "they" say, and if not for us elitists, who would look down on the common people? They wouldn't have anyone to complain about. :)
Thursday August 14th 2008, 7:07 PM
Comment by: Jeanna B.
I happened to teach it to my 6th grade literature class last year. Surely Mr. Goldstein has passed more English classes than they have--so far. :)
Tuesday April 28th 2009, 10:38 AM
Comment by: Elle
Why the brouhaha? Okay, I've lived within an hour of the ostensibly impossible to pronounce town of Schenectady my entire adult life, so maybe it's a matter of practice makes perfect, but...Wow! Since the names of so many places in the United States are derived from Native American words I wouldn't have expected this level of noise.

Synecdoche? I'm pleasantly surprised to be exposed to a new word, but if the American public has this much trouble looking up a word and reading the phoenetic spelling in the average dictionary I think we should consider changing some things in our public school system.
Monday December 29th 2014, 3:57 PM
Comment by: Dr. Horn
Words defining various manners of speech are a special set to enjoy, learn, use and inevitably forget... dammit.

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