Definition of Meiosis

Meiosis is a figure of speech that minimizes the importance of something through euphemism. Meiosis is an attempt to downplay the significance or size of an unpleasant thing, though not all meiosis examples refer to something negative.

The term meiosis comes from the Greek word μειόω, which means “to make smaller” or “to diminish.” Originally, the definition of meiosis referred to a biological process in which gametic cells divide. The term was borrowed for literary purposes with a more metaphorical meaning of making something smaller.

Difference Between Meiosis, Litotes, and Understatement

Understatement involves any minimization of something, and can be used for humorous purposes, to comfort people, to be humble, and many other purposes. Both litotes and meiosis are forms of understatement, and thus have more specialized uses and forms.

  • Litotes: Litotes refers to the practice of negating something in order to prove the opposite. Generally this means a situation in which the thing denied is negative and the affirmed opposite is a positive thing. For example: “It wasn’t bad.”
  • Meiosis: Meiosis differs from other forms of understatement due its use of euphemism. Euphemism allows people to skirt around unpleasant things while they talk or write, and minimize the discomfort of talking about it. Meiosis employs this, though there are also examples of meiosis in which a word connoting something small is substituted for a large thing (for example, calling the Atlantic Ocean “the pond”).

Common Examples of Meiosis

There are a number of famous meiosis examples, such as the following phrases used for infamous periods in history:

  • The Troubles (a period of violence in Northern Ireland)
  • Our Peculiar Institution (slavery in the American south before the Civil War)
  • The Recent Unpleasantness (after the Civil War, what those in the American south referred to those events as)

We also might use meiosis to describe and belittle professions, such as the following:

  • Grease-monkey (mechanic)
  • Ambulance-chaser (personal injury lawyer)
  • Shrink (psychiatrist)

There’s a famous example of meiosis in the film Monty Python and the Holy Grail in which a knight gets all of his limbs cut off, but still tries to fight:

[after slicing one of the Black Knight’s arms off]
King Arthur: Now stand aside, worthy adversary!
Black Knight: ‘Tis but a scratch!
King Arthur: A scratch? Your arm’s off!
Black Knight: No, it isn’t.
King Arthur: What’s that, then?
Black Knight: [after a pause] I’ve had worse.
King Arthur: You liar!
Black Knight: Come on, you pansy!

Significance of Meiosis in Literature

Authors use meiosis for the same reasons that we use it in ordinary conversation. Sometimes we try to avoid talking about taboo and difficult subjects by speaking in euphemism; by diminishing the way we talk about something, the problem might feel smaller as well. Sometimes authors use meiosis to be humble, such as in Edgar Allen Poe’s case below (Example #2). Writers also might use meiosis for humor or to surprise others, such as in Example #4 below from J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye.

Examples of Meiosis in Literature

Example #1

MERCUTIO: I am hurt.
A plague o’ both your houses! I am sped.
Is he gone and hath nothing?
BENVOLIO: What, art thou hurt?
MERCUTIO: Ay, ay, a scratch, a scratch. Marry, ’tis enough.
Where is my page?—Go, villain, fetch a surgeon.

(Romeo and Juliet by William Shakespeare)

When Mercutio is mortally wounded in William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet he uses one of the most famous meiosis examples of all time. Instead of complaining too much about his injury, he asserts that it’s “a scratch, a scratch.” He continues with the euphemistic “’tis enough,” meaning that this wound will lead to his death, even though he has just downplayed its significance. This quote is a clear antecedent for the Monty Python sketch quoted above.

Example #2

For the most wild yet most homely narrative which I am about to pen, I neither expect nor solicit belief. Mad indeed would I be to expect it, in a case where my very senses reject their own evidence. Yet, mad am I not—and very surely do I not dream. But to-morrow I die, and to-day I would unburden my soul. My immediate purpose is to place before the world, plainly, succinctly, and without comment, a series of mere household events.

(“The Black Cat” by Edgar Allen Poe)

Many authors use humble language in their narration, though this opening to Edgar Allen Poe’s short story “The Black Cat” is a study in contrast. Apparently the narrative is “most wild” and yet “most homely.” Poe has his narrator assert that what is to follow is “a series of mere household events”—an example of meiosis, as, clearly, there will be some terrifying events to come.

Example #3

‘It’s really an awfully simple operation, Jig,’ the man said. ‘It’s not really an operation at all.’
The girl looked at the ground the table legs rested on.
‘I know you wouldn’t mind it, Jig. It’s really not anything. It’s just to let the air in.’

(“Hills Like White Elephants” by Ernest Hemingway)

The short story “Hills Like White Elephants” by Ernest Hemingway is a model of restraint. A couple sits together in the hot dusty hills of Spain drinking and speaking in short and simple sentences. However, the subtext of their conversation is quite dramatic; they are talking about the girl getting an abortion. In keeping with Hemingway’s style, neither one comes out and says this. Instead, the man uses the meiosis example of saying that the abortion is “just to let the air in.” He means to make the process sound natural and simple so that the girl is not so afraid of it.

Example #4

“No, everybody’s fine at home,” I said. “It’s me. I have to have this operation.”
“Oh! I’m so sorry,” she said. She really was, too. I was right away sorry I’d said it, but it was too late.
“It isn’t very serious. I have this tiny little tumor on the brain.”
“Oh, no!” She put her hand up to her mouth and all.
“Oh, I’ll be all right and everything! It’s right near the outside. And it’s a very tiny one. They can take it out in about two minutes.”
Then I started reading this timetable I had in my pocket. Just to stop lying. Once I get started, I can go on for hours if I feel like it. No kidding. Hours.

(The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger)

In this example, the operation in question is all a lie. The protagonist Holden Caulfield from J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye begins to convince a woman that he has brain cancer. He has been lying to the woman for the whole scene, and tops it off with this fabrication about a tumor. Thus, this is an interesting example where Caulfield creates hyperbolic lie and then minimizes it to gain sympathy.

Test Your Knowledge of Meiosis

1. Which of the following statements is the best meiosis definition, as it relates to literature?
A. Affirming something by negating its opposite.
B. An understatement that generally involves euphemism.
C. An extreme exaggeration.

Answer to Question #1 Show

2. Which of the following statements is true?
A. Understatement is a form of meiosis.
B. Meiosis is always used to downplay the significance of something unpleasant.
C. All meiosis examples involve understatement.

Answer to Question #2 Show

3. Consider that the following quote from William Shakespeare’s King Lear comes after Lear has already begun to go mad:

LEAR: Pray, do not mock me.
I am a very foolish fond old man,
Fourscore and upward, not an hour more nor less.
And to deal plainly
I fear I am not in my perfect mind.
Methinks I should know you, and know this man.
Yet I am doubtful, for I am mainly ignorant
What place this is, and all the skill I have
Remembers not these garments. Nor I know not
Where I did lodge last night. Do not laugh at me,
For as I am a man, I think this lady
To be my child Cordelia.

What part of the above excerpt is an example of meiosis?
A. “I fear I am not in my perfect mind.”
B. “Do not laugh at me.”
C. “I think this lady / to be my child Cordelia.”

Answer to Question #3 Show

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