On the Pronunciation of Words as a Demonstration of Synecdoche

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In eighth grade my English teacher1 told us that the figure of speech by which a part represents a whole or vice versa was called “synecdoche”, which she pronounced “sink-doh-shay.” From that moment over ensuing decades right down to about 1:15 this afternoon, that is how I pronounced the word in my head on the rare occasions I encountered it.

It is not a word I encounter often in day-to-day life. In my time as a writer working with editors at various magazines, the word never came up. In my time in writers groups critiquing pieces across all genera and species, it has never been uttered. But in this collection of essays I’m reading at the moment2 the word has been used several times. And as I am listening to the audiobook, the narrator keeps mispronouncing the word. Each it is used, the narrator does not say “sink-do-shay,” but instead garbles the word as “se-nek-duh-kee.”

After the fourth or fifth mispronunciation, I could no longer take it. I needed to prove to myself that this word was suffering verbal abuse by the book’s narrator. I looked it up in my trusty Merriam-Webster. I checked the pronunciation. I felt gathering dismay. I checked the pronunciation key3 to make sure I was not misinterpretting what I saw. What I saw was:


which is pronounced “se-nek-duh-kee.”

My face reddened with decades of retroactive embarrassment. The narrator was pronouncing the word correctly and it was my English teacher from junior high school who had pronounced the word wrong, setting forth upon the world countless students who would forever mispronounce the word until corrected4, which was not very likely since synecdoche is not a word that comes in often in casual conversation.

The obvious lesson here is one taught in countless spy movies and novels: trust no one. Or its less cynical cliché, trust, but verify.

I’ve seen it said that readers know how to spell words, but don’t always know how to pronounce them correctly, and listeners know how to pronounce words but don’t always know how to spell them correctly. Clearly, I grew up in the former category. I can think of half a dozen examples where I read a word and never heard it pronounced until I listened to an audiobook–and was surprised that I was mispronouncing it in my head. But I won’t bore you with those. I will let synecdoche stand for all the others5.

Written on 16 November 2022.

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  1. Name withheld. The only person I intend to embarrass here is myself.
  2. Both Flesh and Not: Essays by David Foster Wallace. A posthumous collection of many of his earlier essays.
  3. Do they even teach kids today how to use a pronunciation key? Or a dictionary, for that matter?
  4. And when first corrected, likely argue that, no, that’s not how you say it. My 8th grade English teacher said it was pronounced thus…
  5. When my embarrassment finally subsided and I thought about writing this up little essay, that final sentence was the first to come to mind, for obvious reasons.


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