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Say It Like This, Mean It Like That

By       Message Amy Bernstein     Permalink
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As the curtain slowly falls on this draining passion play that has kept us glued to our chairs for 20-odd months without so much as a bathroom break, it's good to know that the time has not entirely been wasted. I, for one, have learned a new word that helps to describe what we've been watching all this time.

Synecdoche.

At first, I couldn't even pronounce it correctly (and if you can't either, well, that's what dictionaries are for). But quirky screenwriter-turned-director Charlie Kauffman has unwittingly given us all a gift with the title of his new film, Synecdoche, New York. (Hint: It nearly rhymes with Schenectady, a city in upstate New York, and if you can't pronounce that one, I can't help you.) Film reviewers everywhere have been sent scurrying to their dictionaries, to up their literacy IQs on the sly. Journalists hate meeting words they do not recognize. It's embarrassing and undignified--like handing a surgeon some type of scalpel he's never seen before, in the middle of an operation.

In case you haven't had a chance to fling this word into a casual conversation while waiting, say, for your latte at Starbucks, it's a figure of speech in which a part is used to represent the whole, or the whole for a part. As in, "I need a new set of wheels, man,"- where "wheels"- stands in for "car."- Or "We've got the law on our tail,"- where "law"- refers to the police.

Once I found this all out, the proverbial light bulb sprouted over my head. (No synecdoche here, by the way, because "light bulb"- is merely a metaphor, and a lame one at that.)

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Political discourse, as practiced by Obama, McCain, and practically every other politician plopped in front of a microphone, is riddled with, mired in, crippled by, and sometimes derailed by synecdochic expressions.

How so?

When Republican partisans speak of arugula-eating, chablis-sipping liberals, they're using specific food choices to represent a whole range of progressive views. This is a case of the part representing the whole.

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Even a seemingly unambiguous word like "taxes"- has acquired synecdochic tendencies. When McCain speaks disparagingly of "raising taxes,"- he's using the whole to represent the part--where this one short phrase stands in for big government, wasteful spending, rob-you-blind, and similar ideas. It's synecdoche because the notions we've come to associate with key code words and phrase are inextricably linked.

If I say "vast right-wing conspiracy,"- the phrase doesn't only conjure a vision of Hillary Clinton in a turquoise pantsuit, but a highly specific notion about conservative vendettas fueled by shady but deep-pocketed characters. You could call this one a part-for-whole synecdoche.

On the liberal side, the same thing goes. Obama has managed to co-opt the word "change"- to such a degree that it has become a synecdochic stand-in for "not Bush, not McCain"- and ideas along those lines.

Heck, the word "liberal"- itself is, for some of those who stand on the other side of the red/blue divide, a synecdochic stand-in for "tax-and-spend homosexual-loving anti-Americans."-

Really, we could play this game all day.

Now, I know this has the professional linguists rolling their eyes. And I can see that perhaps I've pushed synecdoche into rooms it was never meant to visit.

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But I think that overall, the connection holds, and it doesn't speak very well about the way we conduct political discourse in this country.

Americans are supposedly a plain-speaking folk. But modern political discourse is anything but. We have evolved a tortured lexicon of euphemisms and fungible vocabularies, where a candidate says one thing, but really means something far more intense and usually far less politically correct.

Remember former Virginia Governor Mark Warner's "macaca"- moment? Giving him the benefit of the doubt, perhaps he thought the term referred to an outsider, a foreigner, somebody not from these parts who's unfamiliar with our customs. In fact it was a kind of racist slur, albeit not one familiar to most Americans.

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Amy L. Bernstein is a full-time executive speechwriter and a former award-winning print journalist, public radio reporter, and editor. Author of two books, one celebrating Baltimore's bicentennial, the other a novel for young teens. She has a (more...)
 

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