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Definition and Examples of Meiosis

Meiosis (also known as “extenuatio,” “detractio,” “diminutiothe disabler”; etymologically from Greek ‘mei-o-o,’ literally “to make smaller”) is a euphemistic figureOpens in new window whose statement depicts something important with terms or degrading epithetsOpens in new window that lessen its significance.

Any verbal effort to make an event, an idea, or a person less significant is a form of meiosis; it can be thought of as the opposite of AuxesisOpens in new window (efforts to give something presence). Meiosis is by some rhetors regarded as a kind of LitotesOpens in new window.

Henry PeachamOpens in new window in the first edition of his Garden of Eloquence treats this figure “meiosis” as the general technique of using “a lesse word for a greater, to make the matter much lesse then it is”.

Notable Examples

  1. Said of an amputated leg: “It's just a flesh wound”

    — Monty Python and the Holy Grail

  2. “Ay, ay, a scratch, a scratch,”

    The line above is an excerpt from ShakespeareanOpens in new window’s Romeo and JulietOpens in new window, where the character Mercutio is brutally injured and says: “Ay, ay, a scratch, a scratch,” apparently to diminish the magnitude of the injury.

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  • References
    • Cicero De Or. 3.53. 202 (“extenuation”);
    • Melanch. ER D4v (“meiosis” “tapinosis” “diminution”);
    • Sherry 1550, p. 61 (“miosis,” “diminution”);
    • Peacham 1577, N4v; Puttenham 1589, p. 195, 227 (“meiosis,” “the disabler”);
    • Susenbrotus 1562, p. 78 (“diminutio,” “meiosis”);
    • Quintilian 1.0., 8.4. 28 (“diminutio”)

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