Definition of Meiosis

The word meiosis originated from the Greek word “meioo” that means “to diminish” or “to make smaller”. Meiosis can be defined as a witty understatement that belittles or dismisses something or somebody, particularly by making use of terms that gives impression that something is less important than it is or it should be. Meiosis examples are sometimes also used in the sense of a synonym of litotes.

In literature, however, meiosis describes the use of understatement to highlight a point or explain a situation or to understate a response used to enhance the effect of a dramatic moment. For example, when Mercutio is wounded mortally and he says “ay, ay, a scratch, a scratch…” , this is a form of meiosis(Romeo and Juliet by William Shakespeare).

Features of Meiosis

  • It is intentional understatement.
  • It is used to belittle a person or an event.
  • It is opposite to hyperbole or exaggeration.
  • It often makes use of litotes as synonym to give ironic effect.

Examples of Meiosis in Literature

There are several examples of meiosis in literature, where the persons and events are understated depending on the situations. Here are some of them:

Example #1

An extract from King Lear by William Shakespeare

“I am a very foolish fond old man,
Fourscore and upward, not an hour more or less;
And, to deal plainly,
I fear I am not in my perfect mind….”

Shakespeare has used meiosis in these lines to create humor. Although it is undoubtedly clear that Lear has gone mad, yet his reaction that “I fear I am not in my perfect mind” is an example of an understatement.

Example #2

An extract from Hamlet by William Shakespeare

“A little month, or ere those shoes were old
With which she followed my poor father’s body,
O God, a beast that wants discourse of reason
Would have mourned longer!

O, most wicked speed, to post
With such dexterity to incestuous sheets!
It is not nor it cannot come to good:
But break, my heart; for I must hold my tongue…”

In this speech, Hamlet uses understatement or meiosis to conclude his soliloquy where he states that all this cannot come to good, which is a gentle statement as compared to the rest of his speech in which he has lashed out at his mother. The best and the most effective use of meiosis can be seen in tragic plays like this.

Example #3

Some say the world will end in fire,
Some say in ice.
From what I’ve tasted of desire
I hold with those who favor fire.
But if it had to perish twice,
I think I know enough of hate
To say that for destruction ice
Is also great
And would suffice.

(Fire and Ice by Robert Frost)

The understatement in the entire poem is given emphasis on the last word which is suffice. That means “adequate. In this poem, ice symbolizes hatred and fire passion that could consume relations quickly. Therefore, both would be more than enough to destroy the world.

Example #4

King Arthur: The Lady of the Lake, her arm clad in the purest shimmering samite held aloft Excalibur from the bosom of the water.
Peasant: Listen, strange women lying in ponds distributing swords is no basis for a system of government. Power derives from the masses not from some farcical aquatic ceremony.
King Arthur: Be quiet!
Peasant: You can’t expect to wield supreme power because some watery tart threw a sword at you.
King Arthur: Shut up!
Peasant: If I went around saying I was an emperor because some moistened bint had lobbed a scimitar at me…”
(Monty Python and the Holy Grail, 1975)

Just check the use of the words moistened bint the peasant says to King Arthur. This is the best use of meiosis used here to belittle the king himself.

Function of Meiosis

Meiosis, in fact, illustrates tone and mannerism such as quiet and brooding where protagonists are often understated in tone and action. Meiosis is very common everywhere in our daily lives, old and modern literature and media. We can distinguish understatement in modesty, in humor, in composed and calm characters, in personalities where it gives rhetorical effects to the speech delivered by them. Since it is a method used to give information that diminishes the response of an overemotional occurrence, the basic function of meiosis is to reduce the significance of someone or something in order to heighten something else simultaneously.

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