My New Word – “Synecdoche”

Okay, so I’ve got to share this with you because I think it’s one of those unusual words that I didn’t know existed. I was just reading Seamus Heaney’s notes on the Anglo-Saxon poem, “Beowulf”, and this really unusual word jumped off the page.  When I find new words I get as excited as an amateur naturalist finding a new species of beetle.  Here it is:


It’s pronounced to rhyme with “select a key” – so: “Si NECKED a key”, with the stress on the second syllable.

The context it was in was to describe the Old English word “ecg”, as used by the Anglo-Saxons.  It is pronounced “edge” – and interestingly enough, means “edge” – as in the edge of a blade.

Now, here’s the thing.  In Anglo-Saxon writing, the word “ecg” doesn’t only mean the edge of something.  It stands for far more – because it can also means “sword”.  What happens is that the part of the object referred to gets to stand for the whole thing.  So, “ecg” by transference, also means “sword”.

That’s synecdoche.

You’ll hear synecdoche all the time in modern English, where the part stands for the whole.

For example:  “Here comes Big Mouth,” is a good example, although in this case, you could argue that the part stands for the hole.  Another example would be: “Who’s the suit?”

And it’s not only used this way.  It can also be used the other way round, where the whole stands for the part.  “The street was jumping for joy” doesn’t normally mean that houses, lamp posts and gardens were involved in uplifting athletic activity.  Just the people, normally.

Another form of synecdoche happens when you talk about the container of something when you mean its contents.  For example, when you say: “I’m just going to boil the kettle”, you don’t actually mean that you are going to get a kettle, put it in some form of crucible and watch it first melt and then bubble off as kettle vapour.   Nope, as far as I understand it, you are going to boil the water in the kettle.  And when you say “Do you take plastic?”, it doesn’t mean you can pay for your goods in empty milk cartons.

Then there are the words in which you use a specific class name to refer to a single thing.  I’m not sure, but I think the annoying habit of a friend of mine to refer to all women as a “Doris” might fall into this category. “I was out with this Doris the other day, and…”  He’s a nice looking boy, and the only Doris I knew of was an elderly lady with a blue rinse with a penchant for knitting.  When he tells me this, I see him in my mind with his hairy chest and open-necked shirt in a swanky bar, seducing a woman in pink carpet slippers and 1950s glasses, who will take her teeth out and put them in a jar at the side of his bed, before the evening is out.  Which pleases me no end.

Finally, there’s the version of synecdoche which is a general class name that refers to a individual items.  To be honest, this one I don’t really get.  With “Prepare to abandon ship”, for example, it’s pretty obvious that it means the ship you’re on.  You know, the one that’s sinking.  Besides, abandoning someone else’s ship means getting on to it in the first place.  Which I suspect would be counter-productive.  I think that’s a form of synecdoche, but I’m not sure.  Synecdoche is, after all a new word for me, so I am sure there is much more to learn about it.  What I know is just the tip of the iceberg.

So, if anyone can shed a bit of light on that final class of synecdoche, I will be most pleased.

In fact, to be synecdochetic about it, I will be all smiles.


The Woman Inside Of Me

When I was 23 years old I had the strangest dream. I remember it vividly even now, nearly 20 years on.

I was living in a cottage on the Isle of Arran, off the West Coast of Scotland, where I had taken myself to write a book. The cottage was a whitewashed old place on a farm, with walls made of two layers of local stone, with rammed earth between to keep the wind out. In order to open the windows in the thick walls, I had to stretch deep into the window alcove, nearly bending double to do so. Being so thick, the walls also kept out the sound of the outside. It was a silent space.

Upstairs, the bedroom had a wooden ceiling following the angles of the roof. At night, the window looked out on to dark, brooding fields, and a sky filled with bright stars. The full moon would cycle round once a month, shining a milky light on to my bed, with me in it.

I slept deeply in that room. The soughing of the wind in the gables was the only sound, except sometimes I would hear the scratching of a mouse scurrying up over the roof.

I was a sensitive soul, and I had gone up there partially to write a novel, and partially to be cured of a broken heart. I was a romantic wanderer, I suppose.

One night, I was lying deep, deep in sleep in this silent place. As I slept, I dreamt that the spirit of a woman came to me. She was a strange creature, with a face as white as moonlight. She wore a winding sheet – or if not that – then a floating white cotton night dress. Her face was cold and she looked at me with a definite intent, though to do what I could not be sure. Her hair was blonde – not white blonde – but the colour of ripe straw. If I were to say that she was anything, then she seemed like a goddess of the wheat. And I don’t mean that she was a spirit from a bottle of fermented barley.

A Spirit Hovered Above Me

She floated closer, hovering over me, and I could feel her cold breath on me. I realised that she was going to float down and smother me. And it was then that I woke up with a short, sharp gasp, staring into the night.

And as I looked, she was still there in front of my eyes, lowering herself towards me.

I found that I could not move, and as she came closer, I tried so hard to cry out. But somehow I was held in a helpless trance, unable to move and unable to scream. I was shaking with fear. I could hear my heart pounding in my ears as her body and face pushed closer. I knew something terrible was going to happen.

And then, her body touched mine. And she continued to sink down until she completely disappeared inside of me.

As she did so, I felt a huge wave of resignation and relief wash through me. I had a feeling as if of an unwinding of a massive tense spring in my stomach, and I suddenly felt grateful and happy for her presence.

She has stayed with me, inside of me for years now. There are times when I feel that I have lost her. But she comes back when the time is right. When I am in contact with her, I feel at my most confident. I am able to organise my thoughts, and I am able to write coherently and from the heart.

I have no idea who she is, except that she is me.

Dreams are the strangest things. I do not know what that dream was, nor do I want to know, but thanks to that dream I am more comfortable in my skin than I ever was before. That dream marks the time when I stopped being a boy and I became a man. It is also the time from which I count my life as a writer.

All of this, thanks to the woman inside of me.

No Matter How Bad An Idea…

A friend of mine some time ago told me about an event being held in London called “Cringe”. The idea behind the event was that when we were teenagers we wrote some pretty cringeworthy entries in our diaries that these days we would these days be really be ashamed of – and it wouldn’t be great to share that “cringey” moment with others?

As a writer (and, what’s more, a writer who filled his diaries obsessively in his teens and twenties) my friend was convinced that there must surely be stuff now that I would love to laugh about with other people.

My answer was and is now: nope, surely not. And there’s a damn good reason for it.

It’s all about what you think you are. And whether you still believe that you are a writer capable of holding grand visions. Because no matter how laughable some of the things that I said once when I was younger, no matter what daft ideas I jotted down, I know for sure that there was a spirit of something akin to inspiration moving me to write it. That somewhere, in my addled teenage brain, there was a groping towards something bigger than myself. That somewhere, I was reaching out for the sublime.

So, to stand here as an adult and laugh at myself as a child is, in some way, to mock my own aspirations to be a writer. I may have been misguided. I may have been wrong. But I was trying stuff out. I wouldn’t laugh at the efforts of my neighbour’s teenage kids in trying to express themselves. In fact, I would encourage them the very best that I could. So why on Earth would it be okay to denigrate my own attempts to write when I was a teenager? It’s not. It’s disrespectful.

But it isn’t only disrespectful. It’s also, in my eyes, defeatist. To laugh at what I wrote back then is actually to say: “Ah, well, that’s from back when I wanted to be a writer, you know. Thank goodness those days are over and I’ve grown out of it. I’ll be a section manager in a call centre instead.” And I’m sorry, I just haven’t got to that level of defeat just yet – nor do I intend to get there, ever. I still hold the goal of getting published in my eye, and the sacred flame of creativity in my heart. And what’s more I still write sentences like that last one, 25 years on. And damn good job too. Because for every 20 or 30 crap ideas, there’s a good one. And those old diaries of mine, they are a seam that I’ll work. Oh yes, for years to come.

And that’s the big reason why I, as someone who still sees himself as a writer, and still believes I have plenty more good stuff to come from this brain through these fingers, couldn’t possibly stand and mock the angry, naive, defenceless teenager that I was back then. Because in amongst all of that struggling, there is something valuable. An honesty. And a foolishness. And a drive.

And you know what? I reckon, if you’re going to be creative, none of those things is worthy of mocking.