Definition of Litotes
Litotes is a figure of speech in which a negative statement is used to affirm a positive sentiment. For example, when asked how someone is doing, that person might respond, “I’m not bad.” In fact, this means that the person is doing fine or even quite well. The extent to which the litotes means the opposite is dependent on context. For example, the person saying “I’m not bad” may have recently gone through a divorce and is trying to reassure a friend that things are okay. On the other hand, this person may have just won the lottery and says, “I’m not bad” with a grin on his face, implying that things are, in fact, incredible.
The word litotes comes from the Greek for “plainness” or “simplicity” and is derived from the Greek word litos, meaning “plain,” “small,” or “meager.” Note that litotes is not a plural word. It is pronounced LAI-toe-teez.
Difference Between Understatement and Litotes
Litotes is a form of ironic understatement. An understatement can be any expression that minimizes the importance of something. Understatement and litotes both invoke a certain restraint or stoicism when describing something. However, the definition of litotes is much more specific than that of understatement. Litotes only refers to the negation of one quality to emphasize its opposite. If a person is “not unimaginative,” this negation of the negative quality “unimaginative” implies that the person is, in fact, imaginative.
Common Examples of Litotes
It is quite common to hear examples of litotes in everyday speech in English. Perhaps you have heard or even used some of the following expressions:
- He’s not the friendliest person.
- It wasn’t a terrible trip.
- She’s not unkind.
- They aren’t unhappy with the presentation.
- Not too shabby!
- The two concepts are not unlike each other.
- She’s no spring chicken.
- It’s not exactly a walk in the park.
Significance of Litotes in Literature
Litotes examples have been found in many different languages and cultures. The usage of litotes was important in works such as the Bible, the Iliad, and in Old Norse sagas. Authors and speakers use litotes for many reasons, one of which is to display restraint or display modesty in describing something amazing rather than boasting of how incredible it is. Litotes may also be used to downplay enthusiasm or as a witty way of making the reader understand the opposite sentiment to the plainer one being expressed.
The famous British author George Orwell disliked the use of litotes, and mocked their usage in his essay “Politics and the English Language.” He encouraged readers to eschew them in favor of more direct statements, writing, “One can cure oneself of the not un- formation by memorizing this sentence: A not unblack dog was chasing a not unsmall rabbit across a not ungreen field.” While Orwell was responding to certain grievances he had with written English in his day, he perhaps neglects the historical significance of litotes.
Examples of Litotes in Literature
Once he’s led you to Achilles’ hut,
that man will not kill you—he’ll restrain
all other men. For he’s not stupid,
blind, or disrespectful of the gods.
He’ll spare a suppliant, treat him kindly.
(The Iliad by Homer, as translated by Ian Johnston)
This litotes example comes from the Classical Greek text of The Iliad, written by Homer. Here Iris, a messenger from Zeus, is describing Achilles’ qualities to King Priam of Troy, and says, “he’s not stupid, blind, or disrespectful of the gods.” (This line is also sometimes translated as, “he is neither unthinking, nor unseeing”). Iris wants to emphasize that Achilles will not injure Priam, which she does so by listing off negative qualities that Achilles does not possess.
Hildeburh had little cause
To credit the Jutes: son and brother,
She lost them both on the battlefield.
She, bereft and blameless, they
Foredoomed, cut down and spear-gored. She,
The woman in shock, Waylaid by grief,
Hoc’s daughter–How could she not
Lament her fate when morning came
And the light broke on her murdered dears?
(Beowulf as translated by Seamus Heaney)
There are many examples of litotes in the Old English epic of Beowulf. The first line of this excerpt contains the litotes: “Hildeburh had little cause to credit the Jutes.” This is a clear understatement, as the following lines describe the loss of her son and husband due to the Jutes. This is a subtler example of litotes, as it does not follow the usual pattern of “not un-.” However, it is still litotes in that it expresses the opposite of a statement; Hildeburh does not credit the Jutes for she had “little cause” to do so.
CLAUDIUS: Young Fortinbras,
Holding a weak supposal of our worth
Or thinking by our late dear brother’s death
Our state to be disjoint and out of frame,
Colleaguèd with the dream of his advantage,
He hath not failed to pester us with message
Importing the surrender of those lands
Lost by his father, with all bonds of law,
To our most valiant brother. So much for him.
(Hamlet by William Shakespeare)
This excerpt from Shakespeare’s Hamlet contains an example of litotes in the following line: “He hath not failed to pester us with message.” Claudius clearly does not appreciate receiving Fortinbras’ message, which he shows with the use of the word “pester.”
I shall now therefore humbly propose my own thoughts, which I hope will not be liable to the least objection.
I have been assured by a very knowing American of my acquaintance in London, that a young healthy child well nursed, is, at a year old, a most delicious nourishing and wholesome food, whether stewed, roasted, baked, or boiled; and I make no doubt that it will equally serve in a fricasie, or a ragoust.
(A Modest Proposal by Jonathan Swift)
Jonathan Swift’s famous essay A Modest Proposal is a piece of satire in which he puts forth the idea of eating the children of Ireland to combat both the problems of hunger and of overpopulation. Knowing that the public will react with horror to this proposal, Swift preempts it with the litotes, “I hope will not be liable to the least objection.” Of course, there would be huge objections to the proposal, and Swift ironically downplays the significance of what he’s about to say.
I lived at West Egg, the — well, the less fashionable of the two, though this is a most superficial tag to express the bizarre and not a little sinister contrast between them.
(The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald)
The difference between the neighborhoods of East Egg and West Egg is an important theme in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel The Great Gatsby. The narrator Nick Carraway and his neighbor Jay Gatsby live at West Egg. Here, Nick gives a foreboding sense of how this difference will affect the events of the novel. Instead of just calling them different, Nick says that there is a “bizarre and not a little sinister contrast between them.” This sets up expectations of the reader to find out what is, in fact, quite sinister in this part of the world.
Test Your Knowledge of Litotes
1. Which of the following statements is the best litotes definition?
A. A form of understatement which uses a negative to assert the opposite, positive quality.
B. A polite way of expressing something that is taboo.
C. A statement which exaggerates the importance of something.
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2. Which of the following excerpts from Beowulf contains an example of litotes?
MID the battle-gear saw he a blade triumphant,
old-sword of Eotens, with edge of proof,
warriors’ heirloom, weapon unmatched,
By the wall then went he; his weapon raised
high by its hilts the Hygelac-thane,
angry and eager. That edge was not useless
to the warrior now.
Old men together,
hoary-haired, of the hero spake;
the warrior would not, they weened, again,
proud of conquest, come to seek
their mighty master.
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3. True or false: George Orwell thought that his sentence, “A not unblack dog was chasing a not unsmall rabbit across a not ungreen field,” was an example of well-written English.
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