Meiosis (figure of speech)
In rhetoric, meiosis is a euphemistic figure of speech that intentionally understates something or implies that it is lesser in significance or size than it really is. Meiosis is the opposite of auxesis, and also sometimes used as a synonym for litotes. The term is derived from the Greek μειόω (“to make smaller”, "to diminish").
- "The Troubles," a name for decades of violence in Northern Ireland.
- "The Pond," for the Atlantic Ocean ("across the pond"). Similarly, "The Ditch" for the Tasman Sea, between Australia and New Zealand.
- "The Recent Unpleasantness," used in the 19th century in the southern United States as an idiom to refer to the American Civil War and its aftermath.
- A lawyer defending a schoolboy who has set fire to his school might call the act of arson a "prank." In this case using meiosis in an attempt to diminish the significance of the act (technically, grand arson) to the level of a harmless joke or minor act of vandalism.
- "Intolerable meiosis!" comments a character in William Golding's Fire Down Below as their ship encounters an iceberg after another character comments, "We are privileged. How many people have seen anything like this?".
- "(Our) Peculiar Institution," for slavery and its economic ramifications in the American South.
Origins of meiosis in science
The scientific term of meiosis was first developed by J.B. Farmer and J.E. Moore in 1905 to describe gametic cell division—concepts researched extensively by German biologist Theodor Boveri. The process involves a reduction of chromosome number in the resulting germ cells. However, it wasn't until a few years later that maiosis was renamed “meiosis” to better embody the Greek definition, “to reduce” or “diminish”.
Usage and history
Meiosis typically works to diminish the importance of something or someone in order to simultaneously heighten something else in its place. Such a comparative approach is necessary for the effectiveness of the device. One of the earliest recorded usages of this technique dates back to the seventh book of the New Testament where Paul belittles himself in order to emphasize the power of God:
"For I am the least of all the apostles and do not even deserve to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God. But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace to me was not without effect…" (1 Corinthians 15:9-10).
Rhetorical devices such as meiosis, though not formally established until much later, played an important role in shaping the ideas of texts as old as the Bible.
- Encarta World English Dictionary (1999)
- The Times English Dictionary (2000)
- OED 1st edition
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