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The cost of synecdoche

Words and phrases often don’t account for the cost of events
The cost of synecdoche

Synecdoche is a linguistic term – the kind only ever used by obnoxious English scholars. It means using a part of something to refer to a whole or vice versa; such as using ‘wheels’ to refer to a Ferrari.

Synecdoche has a cheeky tendency to disguise the true cost of something. Indeed, while four wheels might set you back £300, the originally named ‘Ferrari Laferrari’ costs a whopping £2,195,000. The same goes for ‘sails’. The term alludes to an item that can be ordered online for £1,000, but could really be referring to the Maltese Falcon super-yacht, chartered by the likes of Tom Hanks and Hugh Jackman. These ‘sails’ cost a whopping $150m. A particularly deadly trap comes from the phrase ‘asking for your hand’. Beware. What they are really asking for is three children, two cockapoos and an unpayable mortgage, surmounting to around £1m, give or take a cockapoo.

And throughout history synecdoche has operated on a far larger scale, often with big financial repercussions. For example, ‘the troubles’ refers to the conflict between nationalists and unionists in Northern Ireland that occurred between 1968 and 1998 (although official dates are still in contention). The economic cost of this period was monumental, on top of the horrific human cost. One study compares the average gross domestic product (GDP) of Northern Ireland across the period in question with other UK regions and suggests a negative impact of up to 10 per cent. Excluding the increase in grants supplied to Northern Ireland because of the conflict, this figure goes up to 15-20 per cent.

Between 1992 and 1993, subsidies from the rest of the UK amounted to £3.3bn. Further spending came from the military presence, which was its largest in 1993 at a price of £405.6m. The economic impact of ‘the troubles’ continues to haunt Northern Ireland to this day. A recent investigation revealed its public services incur additional annual costs of up to £833m, in which division may be a factor. The most significant costs are linked to policing and justice, but mental health treatment and housing expenses are also considerable. Most of us use the word ‘trouble’ to refer to a difficult crossword or particularly stubborn jam lid. Yet the plural is loaded with meaning due to the heavy cost of a conflict Northern Ireland is unlikely to forget.


Americans use synecdoche too

In 1971, technology reporter Don Hoefler was having lunch with a marketer in San Francisco. It was here that he first heard the term Silicon Valley and decided to use it in his next headline. Since the article, the name has stuck and the area that produced semiconductors (of which silicon is an integral component), has gone on to become the technological powerhouse it is today.

Home to Google, Apple, HP, Facebook, Netflix and more, if it were a country, Silicon Valley would have the world’s highest GDP per capita – at $128,308, which is three times the UK figure. The area has a population of 3m and nine of its residents made the 2020 Forbes’ Billionaire List. Unsurprisingly, the cost of a home is rather steep, averaging $1.18m in 2018. Before 1971, valleys were simply associated with countryside landscapes, but there is nothing natural about the extraordinary global influence this area has today.


Blame it on the virus

In 2020, the world encountered another synecdoche, one based on a particle just fractions of a micron in size: Covid-19. But what does this actually encompass: the £53.8bn the UK has spent on furlough so far; Biden’s $1.9tn relief plan; the FTSE’s worst performance since 2008? “Because of Covid” has quickly become the most popular excuse for inaction: I cannot go to work, because of Covid; I cannot take a holiday, because of Covid; I have not seen my family, because of Covid; We cannot hug, because of Covid. Each particle is microscopic, so can we really hold Covid solely accountable for the immense economic and human costs that we have faced this past year? At the risk of using another synecdoche, the eyes of the world stand to judge.