There’s a figure of speech which has been dancing around, just behind my forehead, eluding me for months. I’ve seen it glimmering in reflections and groped about in the haze but not got it. I find as the sleeplessness of seven months begins to properly kick in, this happens a lot. I am turning into a sitcom mother – I gesticulate wildly as I try to jumpstart my brain when I need to recall that film, you know that film, with that man in it.
The figure of speech search was prompted by Spider-boy and his friends and the delicious way they describe stuff by using just a select part to represent the whole. Using that part, in fact, as a substitue for the whole but in a way that clearly is understandable to others. Like when you say ‘the Green Berets’ but mean US Army Special Forces. Spider-boy and his mates aren’t always as lucky. Sometimes a frantic search ensues as we try to fathom his meaning, but it doesn’t stop him cutting the world down to toddler size highlights and expecting me to be able to follow his train of thought too.
It isn’t as well-known as metaphor or simile, in the figure of speech party it would certainly be drinking in the kitchen not making waves or throwing shapes on the dance floor, but it is useful. The answer, I realised in a Eureka! moment a few days ago, is synecdoche. And a lovely word it is too, expanding and stretching around in your brain as it propels you into saying it aloud.
Spider-boy, for example, talks about the dinosaur museum. If we take him to a gallery, he will home in on a single aspect, one he understands or likes, and talk vividly about a picture in those terms. He wouldn’t talk about The Sunflowers to refer to the van Gogh exhibition but he might talk about it as the ’round clouds’ or the ‘beard man place’. He can spot an animal in a picture a mile off too, and that becomes the masterpiece’s defining characteristic.
It is worse with books, films or episodes of TV shows. He used to ask for ‘the elephants’ (The Jungle Book) or ‘the shark book’ (Man On The Moon which features a hidden joke, unremarked on in the text, in which one of the rockets heading to Bob’s workplace moon is fashioned like a Great White).
But what a wonderful trope it is. And so child-ish. I heard tell of an indignant and steadfast toddler demanding the film with the lady in the cake. She was referring, of course, to 101 Dalmations where there is a brief, unimportant to many, maybe to some not even memorable, few frames where a lady jumps out of a cake at a birthday party.
How marvellous. By cutting through the skin and juice, right to the core of our view of the world, it fleetingly exposes exactly who we are and how our brains work.
I love it for that, especially as I hear new speakers flexing their verbosity and ‘explaining’ the world all around. There’s something very charming in its inadvertent poetry and its earnest and egocentric expectation that the speaker and listener share common experiences and reference points. It requires you to work together, and to find a way, quickly, to view things in a similar style. Somehow I think it brings out the toddler in all of us, the requirement for instantaneous communal understanding, because when synecdoche works, and we cut through the swathes of possible thoughts to the nub super-quick together, we share a mind-link reminiscent of the Freudian Motherbaby single entity.
Synecdoche: cutting the crap out of metaphors (and one of my new favourite words).