Definition of Understatement

Understatement is way of speaking which minimizes the significance of something. When using understatement, a speaker or writer often employs restraint in describing the situation at hand and uses an expression with less emphasis or strength than would be expected.

One very famous example of understatement occurred during a plane crash in 1982. After all four engines of British Airways Flight 9 failed due to volcanic ash, the captain of the flight made the following announcement: “Ladies and Gentlemen, this is your Captain speaking. We have a small problem. All four engines have stopped. We are doing our damnedest to get them going again. I trust you are not in too much distress.” The situation at hand was clearly much more severe than “a small problem,” as the captain described it.

Difference Between Understatement, Litotes, Meiosis, and Euphemism

The concepts of understatement, litotes, meiosis, and euphemism are all very similar. In fact, litotes and meiosis can be considered forms of understatement. The definition of understatement is such that it can apply to more situations than these more specific terms. Let us take a look at the slight differences between these figures of speech:

  • Litotes–Litotes is a form of understatement which uses a negative to assert the opposite, positive quality. Litotes can also use double negatives. For example, if a person is very intelligent someone else might say, “He’s not dumb.” This is understatement because the person is far from dumb. One could also say, “He’s not unintelligent,” a double negative. Note that the understatement comes from context; if someone is just protesting another’s assertion that the man in question is dumb then it might not come off as understatement.
  • Euphemism–Euphemism is not a form of understatement, yet they are related. A euphemism is a polite way of saying something more unpleasant or taboo. Euphemism often minimizes the discomfort the speaker feels with the subject at hand, and makes it more palatable by lessening the extremity of the situation.
  • Meiosis–Meiosis is a combination of understatement and euphemism. Meiosis is a figure of speech which euphemistically refers to something, thereby lessening its significance. A famous example is calling the violence in Northern Ireland “The Troubles.”

Common Examples of Understatement

Understatement is very common in daily speech. The following sentences and situations are examples of understatement:

  • “It’s a bit warm.” (When one is sweating profusely in a sauna or traveling through a desert at midday)
  • “I’m a little tired.” (After completing a marathon or after having not slept all night long)
  • “We’re in a bit of a pickle.” (When cornered in battle or surrounded by sharks while in a lifeboat)

British humor is particularly famous for its use of understatement. The British are known for displaying restraint even in the direst circumstances. Monty Python, a British comedy group, used understatement in many of their sketches and scenes. A classic scene full of understatements comes from their movie “Monty Python and the Holy Grail.” The character of King Arthur fights a knight and cuts off his arm. The knight stands his ground and avers that the loss of his arm is “‘Tis but a scratch.” Later, after King Arthur cuts off the knight’s other arm the knight argues, “It’s just a flesh wound!”

Significance of Understatement in Literature

Understatement is common in many different languages, and has been found in very ancient literatures from several different cultures. For example, examples of understatement can be found in the Old English epics like Beowulf as well as Ancient Greek texts by Homer. Sometimes authors use understatement for humorous reasons, though more often it is a technique for minimizing one thing thereby emphasizing another.

Examples of Understatement in Literature

Example #1

There was Shield Sheafson, scourge of many tribes,
A wrecker of mead-benches, rampaging among foes.
This terror of the hall-troops had come far.
A foundling to start with, he would flourish later on
As his powers waxed and his worth was proved.
In the end each clan on the outlying coasts
Beyond the whale-road had to yield to him
And begin to pay tribute.  That was one good king.

(Beowulf translated by Seamus Heaney)

This example of understatement comes from the very beginning of the epic Beowulf, as translated by Seamus Heaney. The author explicitly states all of Shield Sheafson’s amazing qualities and ends simply with “That was one good king.” (In fact, most other translations of the Old English use an even more understated phrase: “That was a good king.)

Example #2

BENVOLIO: What, art thou hurt?
MERCUTIO: Ay, ay, a scratch, a scratch. Marry, ’tis enough.
Where is my page?—Go, villain, fetch a surgeon.
ROMEO: Courage, man. The hurt cannot be much.
MERCUTIO: No, ’tis not so deep as a well nor so wide as a church-door, but ’tis enough, ’twill serve. Ask for me tomorrow, and you shall find me a grave man. I am peppered, I warrant, for this world. A plague o’ both your houses! Zounds, a dog, a rat, a mouse, a cat to scratch a man to death!

(Romeo and Juliet by William Shakespeare)

Perhaps part of the inspiration for the Monty Python sketch listed above, the character of Mercutio calls his mortal wound “Ay, ay, a scratch, a scratch.” Shakespeare used understatement in many of his plays; here in Romeo and Juliet Mercutio tries to deflect some of his pain at first, but ultimately admits that this is more than just “a scratch.”

Example #3

I’ve got a nice place here,” he said, his eyes flashing about restlessly.

Turning me around by one arm, he moved a broad flat hand along the front vista, including in its sweep a sunken Italian garden, a half acre of deep, pungent roses, and a snub-nosed motor-boat that bumped the tide offshore.

(The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald)

This quote from F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby is spoken by Tom Buchanan as he and narrator Nick Carraway survey his palatial estate. The place is obviously more than just “nice,” as Tom calls it. However, it would be boorish in this society to boast about one’s wealth, and instead Tom lets the sight of his house speak for itself.

Example #4

“I’ll go with you and I’ll stay with you all the time. They just let the air in and then it’s all perfectly natural.”

(“Hills like White Elephants” by Ernest Hemingway)

Ernest Hemingway was a king of understatement, and believed it was an extremely important aspect of writing well. In this famous short story of his, a couple is discussing the woman’s upcoming abortion. However, many first-time readers of the story have no idea that this is what the couple is talking about. The only reference to the procedure is here, where the unnamed man says, “They just let the air in….” Of course, this is much more subdued a description than what the procedure will entail.

Example #5

The blood was dribbling out of the corner of my mouth. ‘The artery’s gone,’ I thought. I wondered how long you last when your carotid artery is cut; not many minutes, presumably. Everything was very blurry. There must have been about two minutes during which I assumed that I was killed. And that too was interesting.

(Homage to Catalonia by George Orwell)

George Orwell used understatement to somewhat ironic purpose. In this excerpt from his real experiences during the Spanish Civil War, Orwell recounts the feeling of being shot. After all the shocking moments of seeing his life flash before his eyes, Orwell refers to it as simply “interesting.”

Test Your Knowledge of Understatement

1. Choose the correct understatement definition from the following statements:
A. Saying something under one’s breath so that no one can understand it.
B. Describing a situation in weaker terms than might be expected, thereby minimizing it.
C. Expressing something in an exaggerated way to impress others.
[spoiler title=”Answer to Question #1″]
Answer: B is the correct answer.[/spoiler]

2. Imagine that you’ve just won the lottery. Which of the following sentences would be an understatement?
A. I’m doing okay.
B. I’m so thrilled I can hardly believe it!
C. I have to pinch myself to be sure I’m not dreaming.
[spoiler title=”Answer to Question #2″]
Answer: A is the correct answer.[/spoiler]

3. Which of the following quotes from the villain Iago in Shakespeare’s Othello is an understatement example?
A. But for my sport and profit. I hate the Moor….
B. Even now, now, very now, an old black ram
Is topping your white ewe. Arise, arise;
Awake the snorting citizens with the bell,
Or else the devil will make a grandsire of you…
C. I see this hath a little dash’d your spirits.
[spoiler title=”Answer to Question #3″]
Answer: C is the correct answer. In A, Iago is quite explicit and forceful of his hatred of Othello, while in B Iago exaggerates the doom that awaits Brabantio (Desdemona’s father) if Othello stays with Desdemona. Only in C does Iago downplay the effect that his words have had on Othello.[/spoiler]