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In rhetoric, a merism is the combination of two contrasting words to refer to an entirety. For example, to say that someone searched everywhere, an expression is that someone "searched high and low". The title of the tabletop role-playing game Dungeons & Dragons is also a merism and refers to its fantasy theme. Another example of a merism is the sword-and-sandal movie genre, a loose term for movies made until 1970 set in Classical antiquity.
In biology, a merism is a repetition of similar parts in the structure of an organism (Bateson 1894). Such features are called meristic characters, and the study of such characters is called meristics.
Merisms also figure in a number of familiar English expressions. The phrase "lock, stock, and barrel" originally referred to the most conspicuous parts of a gun and has now come to refer to the whole of anything that has constituent parts.
Merisms are conspicuous features of Biblical poetry. For example, in Genesis 1:1, when God creates "the heavens and the earth" (New Revised Standard Version), the two parts combined indicate that God created the whole universe. Genesis 1:5 uses "evening" and "morning" as a merism for "one day". Similarly, in Psalm 139:2, the psalmist declares that God knows "when I sit down and when I rise up" to indicate that God knows all the psalmist's actions.
The term entered English in 1894 in the biological sense, but had appeared earlier in rhetorical contexts where it denoted "'synecdoche in which totality is expressed by contrasting parts' (such as high and low, young and old)". It derives from Modern Latin merismus, from Greek merismos 'a dividing or partitioning', ultimately from merizein 'to divide', from meros 'part, share'.
Merisms frequently figure in the writing of lawyers, and are a hallmark of legal style. The two parts of the legal merism "Last Will and Testament" at one time referred to two documents, enforced in two separate courts: the will disposed of a decedent's real property while the testament disposed of chattels. It became customary to combine the instruments in a single dispositive document, and the name has continued long after the doctrines that required its use became obsolete in common law.
A lawyer who writes a will typically includes a residuary clause that disposes of any property not covered by a prior section. The weight of tradition is such that the lawyer writing such a document will often phrase it something like this:
I bequeath, convey, and devise the rest, residue, and remainder of my property, whether real or personal, and wheresoever it may be situated, to...
Traditionally, a gift of real property was called a "devise" whereas a gift of other property was a "bequest". Nowadays, the words "bequeath" and "devise" are synonymous in most jurisdictions so that "I bequeath the rest of my property to ..." is enough in both law and logic to achieve the same result. The entire phrase is an elaborate merism. Many deeds frequently contain a traditional clause that says that the grantee is "to have and to hold" the property conveyed; this usage goes back to the days in which the instruments were drawn up in Latin, and is sometimes called a "habendam et tenendam" clause. The use of legal merisms seldom if ever adds legal effect to the document that contains them, and frequently increases their reading difficulty. However, the weight of tradition and the fear that a deviation from the established formula might have unintended legal consequences makes lawyers reluctant to revise the traditional formulae, and their clients, seeing them, at least draw the satisfaction of knowing that their documents appear to be written by a lawyer.
In some cases, the doubling (or even tripling) of constituent parts in these meristic constructions arose as a result of the transition of legal discourse from Latin to French, and then from French to English. During such periods, key terms were paired with synonyms from multiple languages in an attempt to prevent ambiguity and ensure hermeneutic consistency.:164–65
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- Synecdoche, referring to a whole by the name of one of its parts (or vice versa).
- Bruce K Waltke (2007). A commentary on Micah. Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing. pp. 456–. ISBN 978-0-8028-4933-5. Retrieved 19 May 2013.
- Adele Berlin; Marc Zvi Brettler; Michael A. Fishbane; Jewish Publication Society (2004). The Jewish Study Bible. Oxford University Press. p. 2134. ISBN 978-0-19-529751-5. Retrieved 25 September 2013.
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- William Bateson, Materials For The Study Of Variation: Treated With Especial Regard To Discontinuity In The Origin Of Species (Macmillan and Co., 1894)
- Bryan A. Garner, The Elements of Legal Style. (Oxford, 2001. ISBN 0-19-514162-8)
- Calvert Watkins, How to Kill a Dragon: Aspects of Indo-European Poetics (Oxford, 2001. ISBN 0-19-514413-9)