I think that in the phrase, "the Cabinet conferred with the president," Cabinet is an example of a metonym. The answer book for a sample test I'm taking says it's a synecdoche. I thought I had finally figured out the difference. Help!

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    The belief that synecdoches are a subset of metonyms seems logical. I wish I could access the whole of “Serial metonymy: A study of reference-based polysemisation”. [Journal of Historical Pragmatics, 2:2, 245-272.] by Nerlich, B. and Clarke, D. D. (2001). But we may deduce from the title that the theories are neither simple nor finalised. – Edwin Ashworth Oct 18 '14 at 23:10

Both metonym and synectoche are figures of speech used in rhetoric. "The Cabinet" in your example is a "metonym".

They’re not the same thing, though metonymy is often interpreted so widely that synecdoche can be regarded as a special case of it. Let’s take synecdoche first (which is pronounced as /sɪˈnɛkdəkɪ/ Help with IPA, by the way). You use this when you speak of a part of something but mean the whole thing. When Patrick O’Brian has Captain Jack Aubrey tell his first lieutenant to “let the hands go to dinner” he’s employing synecdoche, because he’s using a part (the hand) for the whole man. You can also reverse the whole and the part, so using a word for something when you only mean part of it. This often comes up in sport: a commentator might say that “The West Indies has lost to England” when he means that the West Indian team has lost to the English one. America is often used as synecdoche in this second sense, as the word refers to the whole continent but is frequently applied to a part of it, the USA. Metonymy is similar, but uses something more generally or loosely associated with a concept to stand in for it. When Americans speak of the Oval Office, for example, they are really referring to the activity within it, the position or function of the President. It’s a linked term, and so a metonym. British writers refer similarly to the Crown, when they’re really discussing the powers, authority and responsibilities of the monarchy, which is symbolised by the crown. The difference between synecdoche and metonymy is that in metonymy the word you employ is linked to the concept you are really talking about, but isn’t actually a part of it. Another example is the turf for horse racing. But the distinction isn’t always obvious and often can’t be rigorously applied, and many people use metonymy to mean both. http://www.worldwidewords.org/qa/qa-syn1.htm

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    The "let the hands go to dinner" example is poor because it's not actually using "hand" as a metonym. Rather, one of the definitions of "hand" is a manual labourer, especially on a ship. Yes, that definition probably came about by metonymy but, nowadays, it's just one of the literal meanings of the word. A better example would be the ship's cook saying that he has a hundred hungry mouths to feed. – David Richerby Oct 19 '14 at 10:20
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    As Edwin comments on another answer, that is the "is a dead metaphor a metaphor?" debate. Which is itself an example of the "is a fundamentally interminable debate a debate?" debate ;-) – Steve Jessop Oct 19 '14 at 12:50

It's really a terrifically awkward example, because sense I:

  • The "small chamber, private room" (SOED 'cabinet' I.3)

in which small groups of decision-makers typically met, gave rise to the political meaning of the word, sense II:

  • "the chamber in which the inner circle of a government meet" (SOED 'cabinet' II.7), or
  • "a committee of senior ministers ..." (SOED 'cabinet' II.8), or
  • "a meeting of a Cabinet" (SOED 'cabinet' II.9).

So the textbook seems to be asking you to conclude that the 'real' meaning of 'cabinet' is 'small room', and that the political meaning of the word has arisen figuratively (because the room contains the people: so referring to the people as though they were the room is the part/whole/container figurative trope).

But that's assuming that the 'literal' meaning of "the Cabinet conferred with the president" is "the small room conferred with the president". I don't think that's the case; the political meaning of the word dates from the early 17th century (according to the SOED), so I think it's been part of the English language for more than long enough now that the figurative nature of the meaning has all but disappeared - particularly because the use of 'cabinet' to mean 'small room' is now archaic.

To back this up, the SOED says that the political meaning is usually with a capital 'C' (whereas the cupboard/room meaning is not). And the example uses a capital 'C'. So it seems safe to assert that the political meaning of the word is the 'literal' meaning in this sentence.

But even if we're sure we're using the political meaning, it can still be the room in which the people meet, the committee itself (or perhaps the people who are members of that committee), or a meeting of the committee:

  • If, in your example, we take 'Cabinet' (a committee - SOED II.8) to mean the group of people who are the members of that committee, then it's synecdoche if we consider the people who compose that committee to be the constituent parts of that committee, in the same sense that the fingers are constituent parts of the hand. If we don't consider the individual people to be the constituent parts which compose the committee - if 'Cabinet' is more like a title than a collection of individuals - then it's metonymy.

  • If 'Cabinet' means the room in which the committee meets (SOED II.7), then it's metonymy because the room symbolises the people - or maybe the room symbolises the committee - metonymy either way ... unless we use the Quintillian definition of synecdoche which includes the substitution of 'the container for the contained', so then the room would be the container and the people/committee meeting within the room would be contained by it, so then our figure of speech would be synecdoche. The Du Marsais definition of synecdoche doesn't allow 'container for contained', so if we're using that definition then we're back to metonymy.

  • If, in the example, the committee itself (SOED II.8), as a whole, as a singular entity, is conferring with the president, then it's not figurative language at all.

  • If 'Cabinet' is meant in the sense of 'this particular meeting of the Cabinet' (SOED II.9) then it's arguably metonymy, because the meeting represents the committee or the people who are members of the committee.

tl;dr: it's debatable. The authors could hardly have chosen a worse example. Couldn't they just have used a "White House" example?

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    This is the 'Is a dead metaphor a metaphor?' debate. – Edwin Ashworth Oct 19 '14 at 0:26

From the following partial etymology

Cabinet: a body of persons, usually a limited number, of the ministers of state of a country, 1630; a secret store-house, hence, its contents. Examples: cabinet of animal functions, 1667; of my secret thoughts, 1549; of his secret will, 1634. {Dictionary of Collective Nouns and Group Terms.}

it is seen that the term was first used for the usual meeting place, then for the people attending the meeting. This is metonymy, not synecdoche. Interestingly, 'church' has made the reverse metonymic transition.

  • I call "cabinet" simply an uncountable noun, much as the word "committee" is an uncountable noun which takes a singular verb, at least in AE. Metonymic comparisons involve taking a word which is beyond (i.e., meta/meto) the name (i.e., nym) and using it to substitute for the name. Example: The crown issued a decree. Or, The badge caught me doing 65 in a 35 zone. Or, My blood, sweat, and tears went into that project. Or, His blood be upon us and our children. In the examples, the implied referent is, respectively, the king, the cop, hard work or labor, and the murder of an innocent man. Don – rhetorician Oct 19 '14 at 1:30
  • There can be c/Cabinets even in the sense being used here, and committees. Though metonyms are usually non-count, this is by no means a rigid requirement. Thus 'a dish' and 'dishes' meaning 'the course/s actually (the first dish was quite a surprise) or notionally (lobster thermidor is one of my favourite dishes) coming on a plate / plates'. – Edwin Ashworth Oct 19 '14 at 8:08
  • You've given me something to think about. The differences and similarities between synecdoche and metonymy have caused no little consternation among some folks, to the point where they use the terms interchangeably. That's OK, I guess. When I think about it, the word "dish" as you've used it could very well be an example of synecdoche, since a literal dish is a part of the whole, which contains both dish and victuals! "Gimme that dish" could mean "Give me that plate/saucer, cup" or "Give me the dish and the food on it." How would you 'splain "I'll have the blue-plate special, please"? Don – rhetorician Oct 20 '14 at 5:17
  • The fact is that the terms are ill-defined. A dish is not part of a course in the same way that a sail is part of a boat, but both the dish (crockery) and the serving are parts of what is placed on the table. It's pointless trying to work out which usage is correct; someone has to pronounce on the matter. – Edwin Ashworth Nov 2 '14 at 22:55

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