The Bedford Glossary of Critical and Literary Terms - Ross Murfin 2018


Meiosis: From the Greek for “lessening,” a trope employing deliberate understatement, usually for comic, ironic, or satiric effect. Meiosis typically involves characterizing something in a way that, taken literally, minimizes its evident significance or gravity. Litotes, a type of meiosis, involves making an affirmative point by negating its opposite.

The cartoon panel shows a little bunny looking at a giant bunny in fear. The room in the background looks messy with paw prints, food particles, paper, soda cans and other items littered on a checkered floor and a few stairs. A caricature on the wall shows a rabbit with an arrow stuck on it. The text next to the caricature reads “Pa.” A speech bubble next to the little rabbit reads “Mistakes were made.”

EXAMPLES: The statement “One nuclear bomb can ruin your whole day,” popularized by bumper stickers in the 1980s. Mercutio describes his fatal wound as “a scratch, a scratch” in William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet (1596); similarly, the Black Knight in Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975) asserts “’Tis but a scratch” and “I’ve had worse” after King Arthur chops his left arm off, then says “Just a flesh wound” after the king cuts off his right arm as well.


A cartoon example of meiosis.

The passive phrase “mistakes were made” often understates the import of an action or situation, as in the 1987 cartoon above from Matt Groening’s The Big Book of Hell (1990). The cartoon, in which the little bunny attempts to distance himself from the mess he created, alludes to a political scandal of the mid-1980s, when President Ronald Reagan used the phrase to refer to his administration’s involvement in the Iran-Contra arms-for-hostages deal.