• meiosis •
mai-o-sis • Hear it!
Part of Speech: Noun, mass
Meaning: 1. (Rhetoric) Dramatic understatement for effect, e.g. 'not bad' when we mean "really good" (antonym of hyperbole). 2. (Biology) The process of cell division in reproducing organisms that reduces the number of chromosomes in the reproducing nuclei from two pairs, one each from either parent, to a single pair.
Notes: We will leave the biological sense of today's word to the laboratory. Let's focus on the more general rhetorical sense that refers to something we do every day, though we might not be aware of it. The adjective for this word is meiotic, and the adverb, meiotically. Our past Word of the Day, litotes is a kind of meiosis, but litotes is an understatement that uses a negative statement to express a positive idea, e.g. "We are not amused" or "Not too shabby."
In Play: Meiosis is a positive understatement to achieve the effect of hyperbole (overstatement): "A single nuclear bomb can ruin your whole day." To say that Bill Gates has a little money tucked away for a rainy day would be to commit meiosis. How many times have you tried not to overreact by saying something like, "I would be a little concerned (= go ballistic) if you had a dragon tattooed on your forehead."
Word History: Today's Good Word is Greek meiosis "diminution" from meioun "to diminish", based on meion "less". The PIE root mei- "small" is often associated with the suffix -n, as in Latin minuere "to reduce, diminish", from which we get menu, minor, minimal, and minus. In Russian, we find it in men'she "less", underlying the name of the opponents to Lenin's Bolshevik ("Majorityist") Party, the Mensheviks "Minorityist", even though the Mensheviks were the vast majority of the Social Democratic Party at the time. Where else is less more? In Italian, where the name of the soup minestrone comes from another "lesser" word, Latin minister "servant", via Old Italian minestrare "to serve". However, the augmentative suffix -one implies bigness, hence "a hearty soup".
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