Rhetorical Device: Meiosis

The word meiosis comes from the Greek "meioo" which means "to make smaller" or "to diminish". The term is well know in biology where it relates to cell division. In rhetoric it also refers to making something smaller - to belittle or diminish, normally using a nickname or epithet.

Meiosis is often used to make a point without sounding overly dramatic, or to suggest that something doesn't need to be taken too seriously. It is frequently used to dismiss or diminish an opponent or their argument. It can be used euphemistically to present an obstacle as smaller than it really is. It can also be used to create a humorous effect.

Meiosis is associated with litotes which is another form of understatement and with hyperbole which is a form of rhetorical exaggeration (or overstatement).


  • "across the pond" - when British, Irish or American people use the phrase "across the pond" they are downplaying the barrier that the Atlantic ocean creates between them.
  • "The Troubles" - was a reference to the decades of violence in Northern Ireland from the late 1960s until 1998. The same term had been used to refer to earlier bouts of political violence on the islands of Britain and Ireland.
  • "Ay, ay, a scratch, a scratch" describes a mortal stab wound (Mercutio in Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliette)
  • "Just a Flesh Wound" and "'Tis But a Scratch" are how the Black Knight brushes off his injuries after having his arms chopped off. (Monty Python and the Holy Grail)
WeWriteSpeeches rhetorical device explainer card on meiosis

Example from a speech

I am turning to the pages of the history of the American continent and asking:
On whose side would Simon Bolivar be in such a war that Russia unleashed against Ukraine? Who would Jose de San Martin support? Who would Miguel Hidalgo sympathize with?
I think they would not help someone who is just looting a smaller country as a typical colonizer. I think they would not support someone who constantly lies and does not even call a war a war, hiding behind the definition of "special military operation". Volodymyr Zelenskyy, "Address to the Organization of American States on Russia-Ukraine Conflict" (6 October 2022)

Further reading

  • Literary Devices.net: Meiosis Visit
  • Silva Rhetoricæ: The Forest of Rhetoric Visit
  • Nordquist, Richard. "Meiosis (Rhetoric)." ThoughtCo Visit
  • Wikipedia: Meiosis (figure of speech) Visit
  • Grammarly: Meoisis in Rhetoric Visit