Meiosis. No! Not the Science Kind

meiosis literary device

Often confused with the scientific meiosis used in biology, meiosis is also used as a common literary device. Like the euphemism, meiosis is a powerful tool used in dialogue and speeches but it is also one of a writer’s most useful tools, particularly in comedy. But what exactly is meiosis?

What is Meiosis?

Meiosis is derived from the Greek word meaning to “make small” or “diminish.” Meiosis is typically used in the scientific world, which explains the confusion when trying to discuss it in literary terms. However, it is a very useful literary tool as well. In writing, meiosis is a figure of speech the writer uses to downplay an emotion or event within a speech or story through the use of euphemism (the same thing but in real-world dialogue).

Writer’s use meiosis to make a point by deliberately understating the importance of something by diminishing its importance. Oftentimes, meiosis creates irony or humor by contrasting the actual importance of something with a diminished insignificant description. Example: Instead of saying someone died violently, the writer may say, “Tom passed away last night.”

How to pronounce Meiosis?

Meiosis is pronounced mai·ow·suhs from the Greek word meaning to “diminish.”

Why do Writers use Meiosis?

Meiosis is a literary device used to indirectly downplay or understate an idea, object, or event with typically bad or negative connotations. One of the most common instances of meiosis occurs when someone speaks about death. As death is a topic most people are uncomfortable with, the shock is often softened with the phrases “passed away” or “kicked the bucket.” In some cases, meiosis creates humor or irony. Notable examples of meiosis in practice include a very large house described as “cozy” or a difficult task as “a bit of a challenge”.

How to Use  Meiosis Effectively

When choosing to incorporate meiosis in your writing, you want to choose the moment carefully in order to have the most impact. Once that has been achieved, there are still some basic tips to keep in mind:

  • Identify the point the thing you want to downplay.
  • Carefully choose the words to achieve the desired effect.
  • Use solid words that are not too strong or too weak. You want to make a point without being overly dramatic or subtle.
  • Make sure the words are appropriate for the context. Meiosis should be used in a way that is appropriate for the context and audience.
  • Use meiosis sparingly. You want  to ensure the point of the understatement is not lost.

Examples of Meiosis in Literature 📚

Meiosis in literature is such a great thing! By downplaying a situation, a writer can create humor, irony,  suspense, or appease fear. As in the case of Shakespeare in Romeo and Juliet Mercutio’s death, while tragic,  becomes both light-hearted and humorous, to an extent.After being fatally stabbed in a fight, Romeo expresses concern for his friend’s well-being to which Mercutio replies:

Ay, ay, a scratch, a scratch. Marry, ’tis enough.

Where is my page?—Go, villain, fetch a surgeon.

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.

While the first statement downplays his injuries, to build on that, Mercutio further downplays the situation while making light of his death.

Ernest Hemingway, “Hills Like White Elephants” – In this short story, the two girls are discussing an abortion, and the pregnant girl, Jig, is scared of the procedure so her friend downplays it by saying:

“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.”

While she makes it seem like it’s not really a big deal, the reality is at the time, the procedure was still relatively dangerous and a lot could go wrong.

One of the greatest, most ironic instances of meiosis in literature pertains to Edgar Allen Poe’s short story, “The Black Cat.” Despite all the odd things and the supernatural undertones of the story, the narrator invites the reader to enjoy a “homely narrative” when the story is anything but.

Meiosis related literary devices 🧸

Euphemism – A way of speaking about something bad or uncomfortable in a way that softens the blow or makes it sound more positive. Examples include passed away, kicked the bucket, skirting around the issue, a little white lie, etc. Writers use euphemism when writing dialogue or in fictional correspondence. Euphemism is a key element of meiosis but not vice versa.

Litotes – A figure of speech which communicates a positive by canceling a negative. Litotes is not an understatement. It merely makes a bad thing seem good. Example: “The food wasn’t bad” is litotes. The way to tell if a statement is litotes is to rephrase it. Can you communicate the same thing by rewording? By saying, “The food was good,” you’ve communicated the same thing but did not use a negative to do so.

And in Poetry ✍🏽

In poetry, the device is even more versatile because it is often very subtle.

One of the great examples of meiosis in poetry is Robert Frost’s “Fire and Ice.

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.

While Frost contemplates the world’s destruction, he casually remarks that it really makes no difference when he writes, “To say that for destruction ice / Is also great / And would suffice.” The crux is that either option is equally destructive but in different ways. So to say that ice will “suffice” is to say that it’ll do because neither is worse than the other –  they are equal in terms of devastation.

Along this same vein is MAry Howitt’s, “The Spider to the Fly.” Howitt writes:

“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.”

With these lines, the spider attempts to lure its prey into its web by making it sound as if the spider’s home is safe because it is pretty and quaint but the reality is, it’s a literal death trap and the spider is hungry.

Meiosis in Movies 🎥

In perhaps one of the  most classic examples of meiosis in film, the following example from Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975) is used to create humor. Enjoy!

Similar to Mercutio’s light-hearted banter regarding his impending death,, the black knight is literally losing limbs, but he downplays his injuries by saying, “Tis just a scratch,” “Aw, I’ve had worse,” and “It’s just a flesh wound.”


What is meiosis in literature?

Meiosis is a rhetorical strategy that intentionally understates or diminishes the importance of something to create emphasis or a humorous effect. Unlike hyperbole, which exaggerates, meiosis minimizes the significance of what is being referred to, often through irony or sarcasm.

How does meiosis enhance a text?

Meiosis enhances a text by adding layers of meaning through understatement, allowing readers or audiences to appreciate the irony or humor in the disparity between the situation and the way it is described. It can also serve to downplay moments or elements, adding a subtle, often wry tone to the narrative or dialogue.

Can meiosis be found in both poetry and prose?

Yes, meiosis can be found in both poetry and prose. In poetry, it can add a layer of irony or help to convey complex emotions in a few words. In prose, especially in dialogue, it can characterize speakers as witty or cynical, and it can subtly shift the tone or mood of a narrative.

Why do writers use meiosis?

Writers use meiosis to convey sarcasm, irony, or to subtly highlight the significance of something by pretending it is less important than it actually is. This technique can also help to create a particular character persona or voice, making the character seem more detached, humorous, or cynical.

How can I identify meiosis in a text?

To identify meiosis in a text, look for descriptions or statements that seem to deliberately underplay the importance, size, or intensity of subjects or situations. Often, the context will suggest that the true significance is much greater than the words imply, indicating the use of meiosis for effect.