f/k/a . . . the archives

May 24, 2008

synecdoche & schenectady (and serendipity)

Filed under: Schenectady Synecdoche — David Giacalone @ 3:36 pm

A headline in the print edition of this morning’s Schenectady Daily Gazette got me thinking about the words “synecdoche” and “Schenectady” (and, eventually, serendipity). The Gazette headline was “Kaufman’s debut as director plays off name of Schenectady: ‘Synecdoche, N.Y.’ screened at Cannes Film Festival” (May 24, 2008). The Associated Press article by David Germain is running under various headlines across the nation and world, typically “`Malkovich’ writer Kaufman makes directing debut” (May 23 & 24, 2008). The online version of our other local newspaper, the Albany Times Union, today captioned the AP story ‘Synecdoche’ has some local ties.”

Synecdoche, New York” Cast at Cannes [Lionel Cironneau /AP] From left, British actress Samantha Morton, American actors Michelle Williams, Philip Seymour Hoffman and Catherine Keener. For more on the movie, see the May 23rd Cannes Festival Clip of the Day, which features the film; and its Cannes Festival details/synopsis page.

The Cannes Synopsis: says the main character Caden Cotard (who directs plays) is worried about the transience of life, and directs his cast “in a celebration of the mundane.” Thoughts of transience and the importance of everyday occurrences and objects are also celebrated in haiku, of course, but the movie probably has no particular attraction otherwise for haiku lovers such as myself, beyond our natural intellectual curiosity. On the other hand, reviewer Wendy Ide, in The Independent, notes that “At times it feels more like a suicide note than a movie.” So, maybe it will appeal to the haiku crowd that likes “Japanese Death Poems.” (examples at Salon.com)

For now, not having seen the movie, I’m going to stick to the words synecdoche and Schenectady, etc.

The City of Schenectady, NY, plays a part in the movie, because the main character lives in Schenectady as the movie opens (see the Cannes Synopsis; and see reviews at the Cinematical weblog, and Times Online and The Independent). It is possible that the character’s bleak life and struggle to find meaning also mirrors the fortunes of the struggling City of Schenectady, which was the once-thriving home of GE. Of course, Schenectady may also play a part merely because Kaufman was looking for a title that plays off his synecdoche theme.

The word synecdoche means “substituting a more inclusive term for a less inclusive one or vice versa.” As the American Heritage Dictionary explains, giving examples:

synecdoche: n. A figure of speech in which a part is used for the whole (as hand for sailor), the whole for a part (as the law for police officer), the specific for the general (as cutthroat for assassin), the general for the specific (as thief for pickpocket), or the material for the thing made from it (as steel for sword). [read its etymology here;]

It would be great if lots of people get to know the synecdoche concept, thanks to this movie — particularly, if it gets them to think about why we choose to use a particular word in a particular situation, instead of a more precise word or phrase. So far, that does not seem to be what is happening. The emphasis has been on the much more superficial issue of how to pronounce the word. This being a holiday weekend, I’m going to stick with superficiality.

According to the AP, the director and cast were flooded with questions at Cannes about the film’s themes and its title — especially how to pronounce it. Director-screenwriter Charlie Kaufman said that with Synecdoche, NY, “People will learn to pronounce another word, and that’s always good, right?” Judging from the reaction in the media and in cyberspace, that outcome might not be as easy as Kaufman thinks. For example:

  • At the Canadian media giant Macleans, Brian D Johnson’s piece is titled “Can you pronounce ‘Synecdoche’?” — but he never offers an opinion on how to say the word.
  • Meanwhile, in her film review “Synedoche, New York” at The Independent, Wendy Ide says “Synecdoche, New York is a defiantly uncommercial movie – it’s infuriatingly enigmatic, philosophical and nobody knows how to pronounce the title.”
  • Seeing the problem, at snarckerati, Kirsten Anderson wrote “Say What? Synecdoche” (May 23, 2008), and has a lengthy piece on the meaning and pronunciation of synecdoche.

The Playlist went even further to prove the difficulty in saying the word synecdoche. In “Cannes: You’re Not The Only One Who Has No Clue How To Pronounce The Title Of Charlie Kaufman’s New Movie” (May 21, 2008), the weblog’s Rodrigo Perez laments:

It’s called “Synecdoche New York,” but no one, including everyone at the current Cannes Film Festival knows how to pronounce it (see video below). It sounds silly, but you know if they keep that title it will be a hurdle for audiences . . . “

After looking closely at the title and its connection to Schenectady, The Playlist concludes: “Intellectually playful to be sure, but not exactly all-inclusive cinema. We hate to be the first to heavily imply, ‘hey, Kaufman, change the film title,” but just sayin’… I mean, we are in a recession, right? Buyers are nervous.” To prove the point, Playlist says:

Watch the YouTube clip: No One Knows How To Pronounce The Title Of Charlie Kaufman’s New Movie

Does Charlie Kaufman help us to pronounce his title? Kaufman told the press at the 61st annual Cannes film festival that:

“The key is also that it sounds like Schenectady, which is the city that it’s a play on. So if you know how to pronounce Schenectady, then you just take out the `kuh.”

Now, I’m no expert in the pronunciation of “synecdoche,” but I do know how to pronounce Schenectady, where I have lived for 20 years. One thing I know for sure: Taking the “kuh” out of Schenectady does not get you the pronunciation of synecdoche. We’ve gotten pretty bad in blurring the sound of lots of our vowels, and Schenectadians have the strange habit of splitting a word so that the last syllable no longer starts with a consonant (e.g., saying “splitt-ing,” instead of “split-ting”). But, we’re not yet equating the sound of “doche” with “tady,” and how to say “-doche” is not all that obvious.

YourDictionary.com shows (skə nektə dē) as the pronunciation of the word Schenectady (which comes from a Mohawk Indian word meaning “on the other side of the pines?). The American Heritage Dictionarys entry for Schenectady concurs:

SYLLABICATION: Sche·nec·ta·dy
PRONUNCIATION: sk-nkt-d

As I always tell people who wonder how to say or spell Schenectady, “It sounds just like it looks, and spells just like it sounds.” I can’t quite say that for synecdoche.

Nevertheless, the film’s star Hoffman did a better job than Kaufman explaining the pronunciation of synecdoche. According to the AP story:

“`Sin-NEK-doh-kee,’” Hoffman said. “Once you know it, it’s hard to forget it, actually.”

Maybe the AP reporter transcribed Hoffman’s words incorrectly, but I wonder just why the word is pronounced as if it had two n’s in a row in it — ending its first syllable and beginning its second. I therefore decided to look elsewhere for the definitive pronounciation (in American English) of the word synecdoche.

  • Playlist tells us: “BTW, It’s pronounced sin-eck-duh-kee, kind of like Schenectady. A synecdoche (si-nek-duh-kee) is “a figure of speech in which a part is used for the whole or the whole for a part, as in ’50 head of cattle’ for 50 cows.” [Note: two different pronunciations in two successive sentences.]
  • In a Reuters/Yahoo piece, “Kaufman defies convention with ‘Synecdoche’“, Bob Tourtellotte explains: “New York is the easy part. Synecdoche, for the record, is pronounced “sin-ek-duh-kee” with the accent on “ek,” and people familiar with the U.S. town of Schenectady, New York, should have little trouble saying it. The rest might need help.”
  • Dr. Goodword — at alpha Dictionary — says “synecdoche (no, not Schenectady)” is pronounced “si-nek-dê-kee.”

They don’t really clarify the issue for me. What about our major dictionaries?

The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language (Fourth Edition. 2000) tells us:

SYLLABICATION: syn·ec·do·che

PRONUNCIAATION: s-nkd-k

Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary says
Main Entry: syn·ec·do·che Listen to the pronunciation of synecdoche
Pronunciation: \sə-ˈnek-də-(ˌ)kē\

That’s confusing to a non-lexicographer like myself, even looking at a pronunciation key. Beyond the arcane symbols, why doesn’t the pronunciation jibe with the syllable break?

Something tells me, we better listen to the word synecdoche being pronounced, if we really want to master the sound of the word. Try

I hope this helps anyone who wanted to lean how to say the words synecdoche or Schenectady. Somehow, I can’t explain why I was willing to spend so many hours of a beautiful holiday Saturday writing this piece. Talk about a bleak life in Schenectady.

Where’s the Serendipity, you ask? My reward, if any, surely includes the serendipitous discovery of a woman who combined the words Schenectady and Synecdoche online several years ago.

It’s Rebecca Moore Howard, an associate professor of Writing and Rhetoric at Syracuse University. In addition to hosting a Dictionary and Scrabble Word Find, Prof. Howard is proprietor of the weblog Upstate, which has the tagline: The Blog Formerly and Fetchingly Known as Schenectady Synecdoche.

Indeed, the editor of this weblog — which is called f/k/a because our many alter egos kept retiring, revolting, or just changing its name — was amused to discover that Upstate was originally called StepAside. However, from the posting “It’s only temporary! (I think),” on March 11, 2005, until its “fond farewell” on December 8, 2007 — it was dubbed Schenectady Synecdoche, with the tagline: “Concerning authorship, intellectual property, plagiarism, and anything else I feel like talking about.”

It seems that Prof. Howard was having trouble with her webserver in March 2005, when she decided to change its name, and told her readers:

[H]ey, it gives me an excuse to use the blogtitle that I’ve decided is actually a lot cooler than StepAside, anyhow. I do realize that I don’t live in Schenectady, but on the other hand, I’ve spent the night there, so that should count. Nobody was understanding what I meant by “StepAside,” anyhow. In case you’re wondering, it was a play (a rather obscure one, I now realize) on the “senioritis” bloggername: stepping aside is what everybody can’t wait for fossilized senior faculty to do. I like “Schenectady Synecdoche” better (especially since I pirated it from Collin): it means absolutely nothing, but it’s funny as — heck.

By the way, Prof. Howard is co-editor of the recently-published “Pluralizing Plagiarism: Identities, Contexts, Pedagogies” (2008), which has a really cool cover. Since she admits she “pirated” the name Schenectady Synecdoche from someone named Collin, I shall get in touch with Prof. Howard to try to find out where and when Collin used the phrase.

Meanwhile, I have decided to change the category of posts here at f/k/a that deal with Schenectady and Capital Region items from “Schenectady Stuff” to “Schenectady Synecdoche” — since the topics covered are both overinclusive and underinclusive of the concept Schenectady. I’m sure Prof. Howard agrees this is not plagiarism, even if it might fit her definition of piracy.

p.s. If you came for haiku, today, please scroll down our main page, or click on our Guest Poets Index Page. If the spirit moves me, and I find nothing more exciting to do this weekend, I’ll add a few haiku to this postscript tomorrow.

And, please don’t forget to save fuel by driving no more than 55 over the Memorial Day weekend.

1 Comment

  1. [...] Giacalone at f/k/a has this absolutely riveting post on the meaning and pronunciation of the word [...]

    Comment by Monday Morning Jumpstart: Memorial Day edition | a public defender — May 26, 2008 @ 6:18 am

RSS feed for comments on this post.

Sorry, the comment form is closed at this time.

Powered by WordPress