It’s often hard to present the idea that language studies and linguistics can be fun or funny, but when we look at issues like syntactic ambiguity we can see that it can be. I’m starting a new series, sort of, with no promises on how many I will do or how often I will publish posts on the subject of figurative speech. My first post is on two polar opposites: hyperbole and meiosis.
The use of exaggerated language to make a point. Regularly used by political polemicists and media in order to stir up fears about “the other side”, this from back before President Obama won his first term in office pokes fun at both the political left and right.
It is as you see, crass exaggeration used either for comedic value or to instil an emotional response, though arguably with political divisions it is used far less for comedic value these days. In this country at the moment, UKIP is hoping to claim seats purely generated by fear of immigrants coming from inside and outside of continental Europe. The BBC has always been accused of politically left bias but their continued use of the term “earthquake” in reference to UKIP increasing their seats at the local elections in the spring garnered many complaints of hyperbole about the impact and what it really meant.
Anyway, let’s get away from politics for the time being.
Hyperbole is not supposed to be taken literally and appears often in poetry and in literature. In Macbeth, the device is used several times to make a grave point. The meaning is obvious though in both of these passages:
Will all great Neptune’s ocean wash this blood clean from my hand? No. This my hand will rather the multitudinous seas incarnadine, making the green one red.
All the waters of Neptune could not wash the blood from his hands. Lady Macbeth uses a different statement to make the same point.
Here’s the smell of the blood still. All the perfumes of Arabia will not sweeten this little hand.
By understating the gravity of the situation, meiosis is in effect, the complete opposite of hyperbole. It can also be used for political reasons (to play down the effects of a concerning situation) and when it is, it may end up as tragic. It is not self-delusion, somebody making a meiosis political statement is often aware they are being dishonest – though sometimes this may be for the good of the people being lied to. A good example of this is Emperors Hirohito’s response to the atomic weapons dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki
“The situation has developed, not necessarily to our advantage.”
For those who understand the political situation in Northern Ireland, its history and the complex legal process of bringing peace, understand fully that the term “The Troubles” doesn’t not even begin to scratch the surface of the issue. It can be used to belittle and mock too. Reducing environmental campaigners to “tree huggers” is the meiosis to the hyperbole of comparing fiscal conservatives to “heartless Scrooges”
Meiosis is used far more often for comic purposes though. This example from Monty Python and the Holy Grail is one of my favourites.
The Black Knight passing off his increasingly horrific injuries as “just a scratch”, “just a flesh wound” and “I’ve had worse” is one of the most amusing examples of meiosis. I’m sure you could think of many from films and books. Later on in the same film, meiosis is used as a plot device to mock. The peasant tells King Arthur
“You can’t expect to wield supreme power because some watery tart threw a sword at you.”