Reading · Word of the week

Word of the week: synecdoche

“Nice wheels”: that’s a synecdoche, the one I use most. It’s when you use part of an object to describe the whole. I use “Nice wheels” to mean “Nice car”, or even “Nice bicycle” or “Nice scooter” when talking to children about their vehicles. You’re not commenting on the wheels themselves: you’re complimenting the whole vehicle. “Nice threads” instead of “Nice suit”, that’s another example.

This is the kind of word I have looked up a dozen times. I’ve never been able to remember the meaning (like zeugma – must look that up again sometime). During a school open day in the autumn an English teacher explained that this was his favourite word, in between discussions about the rather daunting reading list that 11-14 year olds are expected to work through these days. (I didn’t read a proper grown-up book like “Great Expectations” until I was nearly 14.) Until last autumn I didn’t even know how to pronounce synecdoche. It’s sin-ECK-da-key (the emphasis is on the 2nd syllable, and the 3rd syllable is like the “da” at the end of “Miranda”, not stressed at all). I had seen it written down and assumed it was pronounced sin-eck-doach (to rhyme with “roach”). But it’s Greek, so the “che” at the end has a “k” sound, as in “key” and like the “ch” in chaos, chemist, chitin and chlorophyll.

There’s a movie called “Synecdoche, New York”, the directorial debut of Charlie Kaufman. He also wrote the screenplay, and wrote “Being John Malkovich”, “Adaptation” and “Eternal sunshine of the spotless mind”. I’d like to be able to tell you what happens in it but I can’t. I rented the DVD from our now-closed Blockbuster store about three years ago. I sat down to watch it one Friday night but the DVD froze after about 90 seconds and wouldn’t play at all after that, and I’ve never seen it. Perhaps it explains the meaning and pronunciation of the word.

And every time I say “Nice wheels” I’m echoing the the Chris Moyles “Car Park Catchphrase” sequence from his Radio 1 Show around 12 years ago. He would ask the contestants what they were driving and that was his standard response.


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