Merism (Rhetoric)

Merism: A kind of Synecdoche by which the broad view of a conception or thing is expressed by its constituent parts.
Merism: A kind of Synecdoche by which the broad view of a conception or thing is expressed by its constituent parts which is usually two opposing concepts that describe the whole.

Definition and Examples of Merism

Merism (etymologically from the Greek word “meris” (part), literally “a division into parts”) is a kind of SynecdocheOpens in new window by which the broad view of a conception or thing is expressed by its constituent parts which is usually two opposing concepts that describe the whole.

The two words “heaven” and “earth” for example, are the two opposite concepts that signify parts that ultimately express a concept of the whole universe.

In merism, naming two associated words or concepts do not necessarily exclude one another on the basis of a common idea, but to complement each other.

Notable Examples
  • Let the day perish wherein I was born,
    and the night which said,
    ‘A man-child is conceived’
    Job 3.3.
  • Here, “day” and “night” do not exclude each other here; on the contrary: they signify “every” or “any” time that is associated with Job’s birth.
  • “for better or for worse,
    for richer, and for poorer,
    in sickness, and in health.”
  • Here, the opposing words, such as “better” and “worse”; “richer” and “poorer”; “sickness” and “health” : all signify every moment or seasons that the couple may spend living together in their lifetime. We can witness merism taking the constituent units to express the totality of the couple's lifetime.

In sum, Merism is characterized by way of saying the whole in bits using two distinct medium, the first through constrasting extremes and the second is using several or some of its parts for description.

Merism is particularly prolific in the Bible; i.e. In Gen 1:1, as written “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth” is referenced to all of God’s creation. As Psalm 39 categorically emphasizes: “my sitting down and my uprising up” implying that God knows everything about the Psalmist’s utterances, desires and actions. Genesis 1:5 also asserts “evening” and “morning” signifying ‘One day’ — this also is a merism.

Important Hint! 

In the sphere of lawOpens in new window, merism is a term in which the focal phrase “last will and testament” has its turf. This is used in reference to two distinct documents; i.e the will is traditionally used to dispose or distribute real properties (such as real estate, landed properties) of a deceased person, whilst the testament is used to dispose of a deceased person’s chattel (properties that are moveable such as cars etc).

Further Readings:
Wikipedia | MerismOpens in new window
Jože Krašovec | Antithetic Structure in Biblical Hebrew Poetry, Volume 35 Opens in new window
“The Book of Job; Introduction and Exegesis”, The Interpreter’s Bible, II (New York: Abigdon, 1954) 894a.