Meiosis tries to downplay something uncomfortable, unpleasant, annoying, or taboo in some way. When this is done, it should make everyone, from the people in a room to the reader and the characters on the page, feel more comfortable. It might also disguise the truth of a situation and lead to later, more complex consequences.
Definition of Meiosis
The word “meiosis” comes from the Greek meaning “to make smaller” or “diminish.” It is usually used in connection to science, specifically biology, but is also applicable in the literary world as a figure of speech. The term refers to a writer’s attempts (or someone’s attempts in the real world) to downplay an event or feeling through the use of a euphemism. That is an indirect expression that replaces something inappropriate, crude, overwhelming, or even taboo. Meiosis can also be used in simpler situations. For example, calling the Atlantic Ocean “the pond.” This downplays its size, making it seem as though it’s easier to cross. It’s much less of a barrier when it’s a “pond” than when it’s an entire “ocean.”
Examples of Meiosis in Literature
Romeo and Juliet by William Shakespeare
In this tragic play that tells the story of two young lovers and their dark end, there is a great example of meiosis. Partway through the story, Mercutio is dying after being stabbed by Tybalt. Rather than making a big deal about what’s happening and worrying those around him, he uses the following words:
Ay, ay, a scratch, a scratch. Marry, ’tis enough.
Where is my page?—Go, villain, fetch a surgeon.
After Romeo tells him that the “hurt cannot be much,” he adds onto this saying:
No, ’tis not so deep as a well nor so wide as a church-door, but ’tis enough, ’twill serve. Ask for me tomorrow, and you shall find me a grave man.
He tries to downplay his wound, but he’s well aware that it will “serve” to bring about his end. Soon, he’ll be a “grave” man, an interesting play on words that uses both definitions of “grave.”
Explore William Shakespeare’s poetry.
The Spider to the Fly by Mary Howitt
In Howitt’s best-known poem, she tells the story of a spider and a fly. It was published in 1828 with the subtitle “A Cute Version of a Scary Story.” It describes the entrapment of a silly fly who gives in to her own vanity and loses her life to a cunning spider. The spider starts his attempts to lure her in with the following lines:
Will you walk into my parlor?” said the spider to the fly;
“‘Tis the prettiest little parlor that ever you may spy.
The way into my parlor is up a winding stair,
And I have many curious things to show when you are there.”
Since he wants the fly to come into his web, he uses words like “little parlor” and “prettiest” to make the place seem like something it isn’t. There are ‘curious things” there that she might like to see as well. By downplaying what’s going to happen if she comes close to him, he’s slowly gaining her trust and ensuring that she will eventually give in to her vanity and curiosity.
Read more of Mary Howitt’s poetry.
“Hills Like White Elephants” by Ernest Hemingway
In this very famous short story, Hemingway demonstrates the power of his iceberg theory. He provides the reader with minimal information in the dialogue, narrative, and descriptions. It requires a deep reading of the text, and an understanding of the euphemisms and innuendos at play to fully understand what the couple is talking about. Consider the following lines:
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.
The two are talking about the woman, Jig, getting an abortion, something she isn’t set on doing. She’s scared of the procedure and doesn’t really want to go through with it. Her partner says that it’s “not anything. It’s just to let the air in.” This is a very obvious use of meiosis. The speaker is downplaying what’s going to happen, making the process sound simple and painless when it may not be.
Discover Ernest Hemingway’s poetry.
Meiosis or Understatement?
Meiosis and understatement might seem like the same thing at first, but the former is actually a type of understatement. An understatement refers to the minimization of anything through any means. It might be for a humorous purpose or in order to save someone’s feelings in a complicated situation. Meiosis is one way of doing that.
Meiosis or Litotes?
These two terms are also somewhat close to one another. Litotes refers to the process of negating something in order to prove its opposite. For example, using a phrase like “It wasn’t bad” or “She wasn’t too angry.” These downplay the situation, making it seem better than it was in a way that’s similar to how meiosis works. But, the two are quite different. Meiosis can come at a situation in a variety of ways, using a euphemism to make something seem smaller, less daunting, less awkward, or dark than it is. One thing is substituted for another.
Related Literary Terms
- Ambiguity: a word or statement that has more than one meaning. If a phrase is ambiguous, it means multiple things.
- Antiphrasis: a rhetorical device that occurs when someone says the opposite of what they mean, but their true meaning is obvious.
- Dichotomy: create conflict between characters, groups, states of being, ideas, and more.
- Metonymy: a kind of figurative language that refers to a situation in which one term is substituted for another.