Definitions and Examples of Merisms in Rhetoric

Dr. Jekyll And Mr. Hyde Movie Poster
Robert Louis Stevenson's allegory of dual personality, Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, has created so enduring an impression that Jekyll and Hyde has become a familiar merism, akin to good and evil.

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Merism (from the Greek, "divided") is a rhetorical term for a pair of contrasting words or phrases (such as near and far, body and soul, life and death) used to express totality or completeness. Merism may be regarded as a type of synecdoche in which the parts of a subject are used to describe the whole. Adjective: meristic. Also known as a universalizing doublet and merismus.

A series of merisms can be found in marriage vows: "for better for worse, for richer for poorer, in sickness and in health."

English biologist William Bateson adopted the term merism to characterize "the phenomenon of Repetition of Parts, generally occurring in such a way as to form a Symmetry or Pattern, [which] comes near to being a universal character of the bodies of living things" (Materials for the Study of Variation, 1894). British linguist John Lyons used the term complementary to describe a similar verbal device: a dichotomized pair that conveys the concept of a whole.

Examples and Observations

  • "There is a working class—strong and happy—among both rich and poor; there is an idle class—weak, wicked, and miserable—among both rich and poor." (John Ruskin, The Crown of Wild Olive, 1866)
  • "Young lions and pumas are marked with feeble stripes or rows of spots, and as many allied species both young and old are similarly marked, no believer in evolution will doubt that the progenitor of the lion and puma was a striped animal." (Charles Darwin, The Descent of Man and Selection in Relation to Sex, 1871)
  • "Most people, including most academics, are confusing mixtures. They are moral and immoral, kind and cruel, smart and stupid—yes, academics are often smart and stupid, and this may not be sufficiently recognized by the laity." (Richard A. Posner, Public Intellectuals: A Study of Decline. Harvard University Press, 2001)
  • "[Sir Rowland Hill] introduced the 'Penny Postage' . . .. This introduced the concept where the sender of a letter was responsible for paying for it, and this would be a national service from John O’Groats to Lands End." (Peter Douglas Osborn, "The Birmingham Murder Most Foul That Left Its Stamp on History." Birmingham Post, September 28, 2014)

Words for Words' Sake

  • "Merism, ladies and gentlemen, often looks like antithesis, but it's different. Merism is when you don't say what you're talking about, and instead name all of its parts. Ladies and gentlemen, for example, is a merism for people, because all people are either ladies or gentlemen. The beauty of merism is that it's absolutely unnecessary. It's words for words' sake: a gushing torrent of invention filled with noun and noun signifying nothing." (Mark Forsyth, The Elements of Eloquence: How to Turn the Perfect English Phrase. Icon Books, 2013)

Merism in the Bible

  • "It may very well be that the Bible, as organized, functions as a merism, beginning in Genesis with Eden lost and ending in Revelation with the 'New Jerusalem' gained, these two referring to the entirety of human history and representing the 'Alpha and Omega' (Rev. 21.6) of God's sovereignty. Revelation 11.17 extends merism to the triadic 'one who is, was, and is coming.' Finally, while it may be to stretch a point, it might be said that the 'Old Testament' and the 'New Testament' form a merism that represent all of God's word and the 'Bible' as totality." (Jeanie C. Crain, Reading the Bible as Literature: An Introduction. Polity Press, 2010)

Here and There, Now and Then

  • "Personal 'now' refers to the moment of utterance (or to some period of time which contains the moment of utterance). The complementary demonstrative adverbs 'there' and 'then' are negatively defined in relation to 'here' and 'now': 'there' means 'not-here' and 'then' means 'not-now.'" (John Lyons, Linguistic Semantics: An Introduction. Cambridge University Press, 1995)
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Nordquist, Richard. "Definitions and Examples of Merisms in Rhetoric." ThoughtCo, Aug. 26, 2020, Nordquist, Richard. (2020, August 26). Definitions and Examples of Merisms in Rhetoric. Retrieved from Nordquist, Richard. "Definitions and Examples of Merisms in Rhetoric." ThoughtCo. (accessed March 26, 2023).