Meiosis: Definition and Examples of Meiosis in Speech and Literature

You may recognise the term meiosis from a scientific point of view, but it is in fact, also something used as a literary device. In this article, we are going to be looking at the meaning of meiosis and how it is used. We will also be looking at a series of examples to further enable us to understand how it works.

What Is Meiosis?

In very simple terms, meiosis is a witty understatement which is used in order to dismiss someone or something as being unimportant, when in reality, it is very important. When using meiosis in speech, the speaker might use phrases which express that something is much less important that it is in truth.

When used as a literary device, meiosis can be used as a form of understatement which is there to highlight a point or a matter. The reason that many writers employ the use of meiosis is in order to add a dramatic effect to the piece and further capture the attention of the reader. Meiosis is also an excellent way for the writer to be able to highlight a point without actually highlighting it, the readers attention is drawn to the point simply by its downplaying. It is a common technique used by many authors and has been used for many hundreds of years.

In order to successfully identify meiosis within a text, you are looking for something which contains the following points:

  • The understatement made is fully intended.
  • Meiosis is put in place in order to belittle something or someone.
  • It is an opposing technique to exaggerating or hyperbole.
  • Meiosis is often known to used litotes.

It is quite easy to confuse meiosis with other forms of understatement and so it is important to note the subtle differences between them. For example, one might confuse it with litotes, but there are some differences. Let’s take a look at these now:

  • Litotes uses negation in order to refer to the opposite meaning.
  • Meiosis is often seen to use euphemism in order to downplay an issue or edge around it without causing offence.

Meiosis Examples

Examples of Meiosis In Speech

You might often hear the use of meiosis in spoken language, especially in informal conversations. We are now going to take a look at some examples of how meiosis is used to show how it can add drama and humour to a conversation.

  • The conflict that took place in Northern Ireland was consistently referred to as ‘the troubles’ in news reports and general conversation. This is a form of meiosis because it purposefully downplays the events which in reality, were extremely serious and life threatening.
  • Some jobs are given slang titles as a form of meiosis, these titles belittle the actual jobs and mock them. Some examples of this are calling a mechanic a grease monkey and referring to a psychiatrist as a shrink.
  • The period of time where slavery was rife in America is often referred to as ‘our peculiar institution.’ This is meiosis because it belittle the seriousness of the situation intentionally and downplays the severity.
  • After the American civil war, many citizens in the country referred to the war as ‘the recent problems.’ This purposefully downplays how serious an event this was.

Examples of Meiosis In Literature

As we mentioned, meiosis is something which is used frequently in written work. In order for us to identify it and use it for ourselves in our own writing, we are now going to look at some examples to demonstrate its function.

  • In William Shakespeare’s play, Romeo and Juliet, we see an example of meiosis when the character of Mercutio is stabbed and he utters the words “ay ay, a scratch!
  • Another example from the great William Shakespeare can be seen in his play King Lear, at the point where the king has been driven insane, he uses meiosis to downplay this by saying “I fear that my mind is far from perfect.”
  • In the poem Fire and ice written by Robert Frost, he uses meiosis by employing the use of the word ‘suffice’ to talk about how fire and ice would destroy the world. In reality, these would be things which would consume the earth but by using the word suffice, which means just enough, he mocks the concept.
  • In the Monty Python series, we see many examples of meiosis being used and one of the most famous examples is when the limbs of a knight are all cut off and he tells his comrades that ‘it’s only a scratch.’ and that ‘I have had worse.’ This is a comedic and witty way to downplay the severity of the injury which is most likely life threatening.
  • Another good example of meiosis from the Monty Python series is when a leg which has been amputated is referred to simply as a ‘flesh wound’ again downplaying and belittling the severity of the injury.
  • In Edgar Allen Poe’s poem, The black cat we see a good example of meiosis when he refers to some serious upcoming events as ‘a serie of household events.’
  • In Hills like white elephants, written by Ernest Hemingway, the author uses meiosis as a way to refer to the process of aborting a pregnancy in a much more lighthearted and witty way. He does this by referring to the process as ‘letting in the air.’
  • In The catcher in the rye written by J D Salinger, there is a very good example of meiosis being used when we see the phrase ‘It’s not serious, I just have a tiny tumour on the brain.”


Meiosis is used in both spoken and written language and is a witty way to imply that an item, person, event or place is not as important as it truly is. This form of understatement is commonly used in literature to downplay or belittle something in order to take away from its importance.

One of the most notable things about meiosis is that it can employ the use of other forms of figurative language such as litotes and euphemism in order to make it more dramatic.

Meiosis Infographic