It's happened again: Los Angeles Times readers are up in arms over vocabulary. Last time it was a contretemps over a letter to the editor complaining about tough words like, um, contretemps. This time it's commenters on the LA Times movie blog, "The Big Picture," who are slamming a post about the title of a forthcoming movie, Synecdoche, New York.
The movie is directed by Charlie Kaufman, the highly eccentric screenwriter behind Being John Malkovich, Adaptation, and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. Synecdoche, New York, Kaufman's directorial debut, won't be released in the United States until the fall, but Sony Picture Classics had a screening in L.A. last week, which gave critic Patrick Goldstein an opportunity to muse about the film's title on the "Big Picture" blog.
Goldstein wonders, "Can anyone pronounce the title of Charlie Kaufman's new movie?" The title of the film is clearly a play on the name of the New York city of Schenectady, which is hard enough to pronounce on its own. Schenectady happens to sound like another tongue twister, synecdoche, a figure of speech that the Visual Thesaurus defines as "substituting a more inclusive term for a less inclusive one or vice versa." The website Silva Rhetoricae elaborates: in synecdoche, a part is used to refer to the whole, like calling a car a "set of wheels," or the whole is used to refer to a part, like when Olympic commentators refer to national teams as "China" or "Australia" (obviously, not all of China or Australia is participating in the Games).
Kaufman's title is particularly apt, because not only does the movie have scenes that take place in Schenectady, it also involves a physical manifestation of synecdoche: a theater director builds a meticulous replica of New York for his play. As with Kaufman's other movies, we can expect lots of blurring between reality and artistic representation, so you might end up feeling uncertain which is the "part" and which is the "whole."
Anyway, back to the blog. Goldstein asks a studio chief about the title, and he good-naturedly responds, "If people can't pronounce the title, that simply means they'll have to spend more time talking about it." To demonstrate how hard the word is to say, Goldstein links to a video taken at the Cannes Film Festival, where the film debuted. In the video, festival-goers are quizzed about the pronunciation of synecdoche, and the results aren't pretty. (Granted, most of them appear to be speakers of other European languages.)
Then come the commenters...
"I think I first learned what a synecdoche was in the seventh grade. And I went to public school."
"Any English major worth his salt should now [sic] how to pronounce synechdoche [sic]."
"Oh please, it's not that hard to pronounce."
"You've never heard of the term "synecdoche", and you're (supposedly) writers?"
It reminds us that the great public forum that are blogs sometimes fall far short. Anyone who runs them knows that manners and intelligence yield to a kind of pseudo high-minded scolding. In blog comments, there's an easy way to be the smartest guy in the room -- by simply calling the writer an idiot.
All of this brouhaha simply over the pronunciation of synecdoche? If you're still stumped, check out the word in VT and click on the audio icon to hear it spoken by one of our all-star pronouncers. (You can compare it to the pronunciation of Schenectady while you're at it.)
Feel free to leave your opinion on synecdoche below. Visual Thesaurus commenters, of course, would never resort to "pseudo high-minded scolding"!
Ben Zimmer is language columnist for The Wall Street Journal and former language columnist for The Boston Globe and The New York Times Magazine. He has worked as editor for American dictionaries at Oxford University Press and as a consultant to the Oxford English Dictionary. In addition to his regular "Word Routes" column here, he contributes to the group weblog Language Log. He is also the chair of the New Words Committee of the American Dialect Society.Click here to read other articles by Ben Zimmer