Figures of Speech – Meiosis (Belittling)

The ability to communicate with words is one thing that sets mankind apart from all other creatures. God is the Author of language, and no one has ever used language as precisely as God does in the Bible, including His use of figures of speech, of which there are more than 200 varieties in Scripture.[1] When most people say, “a figure of speech,” they are speaking in general terms of something that is not true to fact. However, genuine “figures of speech” are legitimate grammatical and lexical forms that add emphasis and feeling to what we say and write. In the Bible, God uses figures of speech to emphasize things that He wants us to see as important. Many people who read the Bible never think to ask themselves, “How do we know what God wants emphasized in His Word?” God uses figures of speech to put emphasis where He wants emphasis, so it is important that we recognize and properly interpret the figures of speech in the Bible. Knowing the figures of speech God uses in the Bible helps us to understand the true meaning of Scripture and enables us to more fully enjoy its richness.

The figure of speech we are going to study in this article is Meiosis. In English, “meiosis” is a homonym, which means that another word is spelled the same but has a completely different meaning. In biology, “meiosis” is a type of cell division. However, in grammar, “meiosis” refers to a purposeful belittling of something. Bullinger notes that meiosis was at one time also referred to as litotes, but in modern grammar litotes has been separated from meiosis and is defined as the figure of speech in which something is expressed by negating or denying its opposite. For example, instead of saying a person is a good singer, we might say that he or she is “not bad.” Or, if we are familiar with something we might say, “I am not unfamiliar with that.” Or, if we feel that two things are similar, we might say, “That is not unlike…”

One of the places the fallen nature of the world is clearly demonstrated is in language. Words degrade over time, from honorable to dishonorable meanings. A book could be filled with examples, but a few will suffice. The word “story” was originally short for “history,” but because so many “histories” are embellished or even entirely untrue, the word has come to mean an account that has been invented or a tale or fable such as Goldilocks and the Three Bears. The word “cunning” once meant “knowing,” but because knowledge has often been used for selfish or evil purposes, it has come to mean “knowledge characterized by trickery, craft, or wiliness.” A “villain” used to mean a servant in a villa or country house, but so many of those servants were dishonest, it has taken on its current meaning. Given the downward and worldly trend in language, it is not surprising that we often see the figures of speech in the Bible used in an elevated sense compared with how they are used today, and meiosis is no exception.

In modern grammar, meiosis is a belittling of something to achieve an effect that catches our attention. Thus, for example, a psychiatrist is intelligent and well educated, but is often called a “shrink.” An auto mechanic is someone who is mechanically inclined and competent (if he wants to be in business long), but we refer to him as a “grease monkey.” This belittling catches our attention but can be ungodly and hurtful. In contrast to the belittling of the world, E. W. Bullinger points out that when meiosis is used in the Bible, the belittling always serves to lift someone or something else up. In other words, the purpose of the belittling is not just to put one thing down, as often happens today, but rather to lift something else up.

Genesis 18:27 (ESV)
Abraham answered [God] and said, “Behold, I have undertaken to speak to the Lord, I who am but dust and ashes.

In this meiosis, Abraham calls himself “dust and ashes,” making himself smaller in order to magnify God.

Numbers 13:33 (ESV)
[The spies said], And there we saw the Nephilim (the sons of Anak, who come from the Nephilim), and we seemed to ourselves like grasshoppers, and so we seemed to them.”

Moses had sent spies into the land of Israel, but when they came back they lost their courage to fight, comparing themselves to the Canaanites in a belittling way by referring to themselves as “grasshoppers,” which they did to elevate the strength of the enemy.

1 Samuel 24:14 (ESV)
After whom has the king of Israel come out? After whom do you pursue? After a dead dog! After a flea!

King Saul of Israel took his army and tried to capture David, who was in the territory of Judah. When David had the chance to safely speak with Saul, he magnified Saul by referring to him as the King of Israel while referring to himself as a dead dog and as a flea.

Isaiah 40:15a (ESV)
Behold, the nations are like a drop from a bucket, and are accounted as the dust on the scales;…

The prophet Isaiah compares the greatness of God to the people of this earth. Compared to God, the people are only a drop from a bucket, or the dust on the scales. The scales were the balances used in buying and selling, and were of the kind that we often see being held by the statue of “Justice” that is in many courthouses—a blindfolded woman holding a set of scales. On those scales, the dust does not even cause the scale to move.

1 Corinthians 15:9 (ESV)
For I am the least of the apostles, unworthy to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God.

Paul belittles himself, calling himself the least of the apostles, but why he does that is not clear in the verse. However, if we continue to read, we see that Paul’s purpose was to magnify God’s grace: “But by the grace of God I am what I am…” (1 Cor. 15:10a).


[1] E. W. Bullinger, Figures of Speech Used in the Bible (Baker Book House, Grand Rapids, MI, reprinted 1968).

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