The Big Picture

Patrick Goldstein and James Rainey
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Can anyone pronounce the title of Charlie Kaufman's new movie?

Sony Pictures Classics had its first L.A. screening last night of "Synecdoche, New York," Charlie Kaufman's mysterious magnum opus about a man obsessed with his own mortality. The film is Kaufman's debut as a director after emerging as indie film's best known oddball screenwriter, having penned such surpassingly strange delights as "Being John Malkovich," "Adaptation" and "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind." Kaufman I'll weigh in later today with a first take on the movie itself. But before the screening, a gang of us grungy media types lollygagged around, like a cut-rate version of NPR's "Wait Wait ... Don't Tell Me," trying to guess how to pronounce the movie's title, a play on Schenectady, N.Y. (The only person who seemed to truly have a clue was Christian Science Monitor critic Peter Rainer, but I think I spied a dictionary in his back pocket.)

Of course, this wasn't just an idle exercise. In a business that depends on word of mouth, how do you possibly market a movie with a title that no one can pronounce? Always a good sport, Sony Classics co-chief Tom Bernard laughed when I asked if he'd given Kaufman a list of other possible New York towns that might roll off the tongue a bit more mellifluously, like Rochester or Syracuse or even Ithaca.

"We're completely happy with the title," he says. "The whole idea is to brand it as a Charlie Kaufman film. So if it's an issue with anyone, people can just say it's the Charlie Kaufman movie. Maybe it will be a good thing. If people can't pronounce the title, that simply means they'll have to spend more time talking about it."

We'll see. But the title is a still a tonsil-twirling tongue-twister. When the film debuted at Cannes this spring, a clever videographer did man-in-the-street interviews, asking people how they would pronounce the film. The results are pretty funny--just see for yourself:

Photo of Charlie Kaufman by Sean Gallup / Getty Images

 
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This is coming from a writer for a prestigious newspaper? Have you never heard the word? I'm surprised that you can sit around with your editorial chumps and have no idea how to pronounce "synecdoche." I think I first learned what a synecdoche was in the seventh grade. And I went to public school. For those who desire some enriching information from this article, a "synecdoche" is a figure of speech in which a part is used for the whole or a whole is used for a part. It's like saying "the law" in reference to a policeman; "the crown" in reference to the Queen of England. I happen to think "synecdoche" rolls of the tongue quite pleasantly. It will be interesting to see how Kaufman utilizes this construction in a narrative film format. Kaufman has long been known for his heady eccentricities, and I doubt the success of his latest effort will depend on its non-conforming title.

Clever, too, relying primarily on people with heavy accents for a humorous video on the pronunciation of the word...

Any English major worth his salt should now how to pronounce synechdoche. Just don't ask me how to spell Schnectady, New York.

Anyone who had Latin in school will know how to pronounce this word --and how to use it!

Oh please, it's not that hard to pronounce. Sin-ek-da-key. Asking foreigners at Cannes to come up with it is hardly a barometer. Thank god the title wasn't homogenized by a marketing department into forgettable marquee drivel. And I'm glad Sony Classics has picked up the film for distribution--can't wait to see Kaufman's latest foray into the human mind.

You've never heard of the term "synecdoche", and you're (supposedly) writers?

It means "a part that represents the whole", e.g., "L.A." instead of this city's proper name: El Pueblo de Nuestra Senora la Reina de los Angeles de Porciuncula.

It's pronounced "sin-eck-doh-key".

Wow, my UCLA English Lit/Creative Writing degree proved useful! I can tell paid writers how to do their jobs in a comment forum! Yay me.

Hopefully the real movie critics will explain the term in their reviews as a vain attempt to educate the willfully ignorant.

Didn't we all learn that word in 9th grad English class?

Uh, the Merriam-Webster website is your friend.

"It means "a part that represents the whole", e.g., "L.A." instead of this city's proper name: El Pueblo de Nuestra Senora la Reina de los Angeles de Porciuncula."

That is a poor, if not altogether incorrect, example. L. A. is an acronym and your example seemed better crafted to show off a piece of trivia rather than communicate any understanding of "synecdoche". A better example would be referring to all the sailors aboard a ship as "all hands on deck". The speaker means sailors, but says hands. Part for a whole. Congrats on your degree.

Wow some of you guys are a bit arrogant!

"Not hard to pronounce" - not when you know how to pronounce it, no. But the actual pronunciation is extremely counter-intuitive. A lot of the guesses in the film were completely reasonable "Syn-ek-dosh" is taking a bit of a French stab at it (and it does look quite French)- For example you wouldn't get very far in France asking to go to "Rockyfort" if you meant "Rochefort" . Some of them were going for an Italian/Spanish lilt- all perfectly reasonable given that synecdoche looks like a word that came in from another language.

If you are really experts on English you'll easily see that synek-docky is actually a very unusual pronunciation for a word spelt the way it is. It's an anomoly. So quit with smug, arrogant "wilful ignorance" BS.

Oh and, newsflash for some of you -not everyone went to your school ;-)

"Anyone who had Latin in school will know how to pronounce this word --and how to use it!"

It's from Greek, not Latin.


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