Quote: “There’s horse thieves and heroes in everybody’s line.” Genealogist Chip Hughes, interviewed in Slate.
Figure of Speech: synecdoche (sin-EC-doe-kee), the generalizing trope.
Dick Cheney and Barack Obama are eighth cousins, according to the vice president’s wife, Lynne Cheney. The Chicago Sun-Times further reports that Obama happens to be an eleventh cousin of President Bush.
Big deal, say genealogists. Shimmy out far enough on the limb of your family tree, and you’ll find that you’re related to practically everyone. (We have credible evidence that Dick Cheney is a direct descendent of Loki, the Norse god of mischief and evil.)
Chip Hughes employs a rhythmic, alliterative synecdoche to downplay astonishment over the Cheney-Obama tie. The synecdoche — a trope in which an individual or species represents a group or genus — makes “horse thieves and heroes” stand for notable bad guys and good guys. The trope’s specificity lends enargeia, the before-your-very-eyes vividness that rhetors have sought for millennia.
Snappy Answer: “Mix horse thieves and heroes, and you get politicians.”