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Q From Bob Rosen, Eugene, Oregon: Have you ever come across the word merismus? I couldn’t find it in the Random House Unabridged Dictionary. The author, a rabbi, used this word in connection with the explication of Adam and Eve’s choices. He defined it as something like ‘from the good to the bad and everything in between’.

A You’re right to be puzzled. It’s hardly a common word, and when it does appear its meaning doesn’t always seem obvious. It’s not in any dictionary I’ve looked at, not even the big Oxford English Dictionary. So I asked the researchers at Oxford Dictionaries for their help.

It turns out that they have been investigating the word with a view to including it in the OED. Their unpublished research shows that it’s a term used in rhetoric to describe a type of synecdoche in which two parts of a thing, perhaps contrasting or complementary parts, are made to stand for the whole. In your example, good and bad are used to stand for everything in the world. The term was around in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, but then seems to have fallen into disuse, only being revived in the middle of the twentieth century. It comes from ancient Greek merismos, a division, derived from the verb merizein, to divide.

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Copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–. All rights reserved.
Page created 6 Jan. 2001

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The English language is forever changing. New words appear; old ones fall out of use or alter their meanings. World Wide Words tries to record at least a part of this shifting wordscape by featuring new words, word histories, words in the news, and the curiosities of native English speech.

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Last modified: 6 January 2001.