‘Not one word of it made any sense’: Hyperbolic synecdoche in the British National Corpus

Annelie Ädel


A distinct metonymic pattern was discovered in the course of conducting a corpus-based study of figurative uses of WORD. The pattern involved examples such as Not one word of it made any sense and I agree with every word. It was labelled ‘hyperbolic synecdoche’, defined as a case in which a lexeme which typically refers to part of an entity (a) is used to stand for the whole entity and (b) is described with reference to the end point on a scale. Specifically, the speaker/writer selects the perspective of a lower-level unit (such as word for ‘utterance’), which is quantified as NOTHING or ALL, thus forming a subset of ‘extreme case formulations’. Hyperbolic synecdoche was found to exhibit a restricted range of lexicogrammatical patterns involving word, with the negated NOTHING patterns being considerably more common than the ALL patterns. The phenomenon was shown to be common in metonymic uses in general, constituting one-fifth of all cases of metonymy in word. The examples of hyperbolic synecdoche were found not to be covered by the oft- quoted ‘abbreviation’ rationale for metonymy; instead, they represent a more roundabout way of expression. It is shown that other cases of hyperbolic synecdoche exist outside of word and the domain of communication (such as ‘time’ and ‘money’).


metonymy; synecdoche; hyperbole; hyperbolic synecdoche; figurative language; WORD; metalinguistic; extreme case formulations; corpus-based

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