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I'm looking for a word similar to synecdoche, but without the literary-device meaning. It designates something as being representative of a whole. I believe I picked this up in a David Foster Wallace essay.

The word would be used, for example, to describe Kanye West as representing American egotism as a whole.

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Can't have been as simple as prime example or showcase, can it? –  RegDwigнt Dec 18 '13 at 19:38
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Also prototype, ideal, generic, and normal, among many other terms, all depending on the type of "representativity" and the type of "whole" involved, all in context for the intended audience. The description is not really precise enough without any further boundary conditions. –  John Lawler Dec 18 '13 at 20:40

7 Answers 7

Microcosm

something (such as a place or an event) that is seen as a small version of something much larger (from Merriam Webster online)

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Metonym.

Wikipedia describes metonymy as:

Metonymy ... is a figure of speech in which a thing or concept is called not by its own name but rather by the name of something associated in meaning with that thing or concept.

It goes on:

For instance, "Hollywood" is used as a metonym for the U.S. film industry because of the fame and cultural identity of Hollywood, a district of the city of Los Angeles, California, as the historical center of film studios and film stars. The national capital is often used to represent the government of a country, such as "Westminster" for Parliament of the United Kingdom,

Also:

Synecdoche and metalepsis are considered specific types of metonymy.

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exemplar comes to mind:

a typical example or instance; an orignal or archetype

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Quintessence - the purest or most typical instance

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Oh, but the OP is looking for a single word! –  RegDwigнt Dec 18 '13 at 23:33
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@Reg: I've added a definition, since Daniel obviously doesn't realise we expect at least some kind of "supporting evidence". This word itself seems at least as good as any other posted so far. –  FumbleFingers Dec 18 '13 at 23:38
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This is a cool word but imo quintessential is the most overrused/trite word in pop culture at the moment –  HC_ Dec 19 '13 at 0:39

I believe you're looking for epitome:

a perfect example: an example that represents or expresses something very well

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embodiment is quite close to the equivalent of synecdoche without the specific denotation of a literary device: someone or something that is a perfect representative or example of a quality, idea, etc.; the representation or expression of something in a tangible or visible form.

Mother Theresa was the embodiment of devotion to others; she was selflessness itself.

Other words that mean the same thing: image, incarnation, incorporation, manifestation, personification, realization, substantiation; quintessence, archetype, exemplar.

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Provided you're using it for some positive quality (or you are feeling cynical), you could use Paragon.

A person of preeminent qualities, who acts as a pattern or model of some given (especially positive) quality.

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