I. What is Litotes?
Litotes is an understatement in which a positive statement is expressed by negating its opposite. This sounds like a strange definition, but a few examples will make the meaning clear.
The classic example of litotes is the phrase “not bad.” By negating the word “bad,” you’re saying that something is good, or at least OK. However, in most contexts it’s an understatement. For example: “Not bad! Not bad at all!” The idea here is that someone is actually pretty excited about something – that they think it’s a lot better than just “not bad.”
Litotes (pronounced LIE-tuh-teez or lie-TOE-teez) is a Greek word meaning “simple, plain.”
II. Examples of Litotes
After someone hires you, you might say, “Thank you, ma’am, you won’t regret it.” The negation is an understatement, of course – what you really mean is that your boss will be happy with your performance.
Litotes generally gives the expression a biting, ironic tone, for example in ironic comparisons. If you don’t like someone’s guitar playing, you might say “He’s hardly a Jimi Hendrix.” Similarly, there’s a whole family of litotes-infused metaphors for saying that someone is dumb: not the sharpest tool in the shed; not the brightest crayon in the box; not the sharpest knife in the drawer.
III. The Importance of Litotes
Litotes were common in Anglo-Saxon, so it goes back quite a ways. It’s also common in other languages as diverse as Turkish, Spanish, and Mandarin Chinese. But its precise impact is not entirely clear (get it?).
Some people argue that it’s a way of affecting psychological distance from the conversation topic. For example, if I say “Great job!” I’m demonstrating a genuine investment in the situation. I’m showing that I care and therefore making myself vulnerable. If I simply say “Not bad,” however, I maintain a safe distance from the situation and give the impression that I don’t really care that much. In our increasingly ironic society, where genuine commitment and investment are less and less common, litotes may well be on the rise.
On the other hand, sometimes litotes can be a way of softening the impact of criticism. If you have to say that someone is doing a poor job at something, it may be less hurtful to say “you don’t excel at math” rather than “you’re terrible at math.” Depending on what’s being said, litotes might express modesty or arrogance, irony or sincerity, compassion or invective.
IV. Examples of Litotes in Literature and History
I cannot say that I think you are very generous to the ladies; for, whilst you are proclaiming peace and good-will to men, emancipating all nations, you insist upon retaining an absolute power over wives. (Abigail Adams, letter to John Adams)
John Adams, one of the founding fathers, had a wife who was a strong believer in women’s rights. In one of her letters, she condemns her husband’s hypocrisy in touting liberty while opposing women’s liberation at home. The litotes in her letter thinly veils the sharpness of her critique – which is pretty biting for a woman of that time!
I will multiply them, and they shall not be few; I will make them honored, and they shall not be small. (Jeremiah 30:19)
In this line, God is saying that he will restore the tribe of Jacob to greatness, using litotes to understate the effect of his divine intervention.
[Beowulf] raised the hard weapon by the hilt, angry and resolute – the sword wasn’t useless to the warrior… (Beowulf, line 1575)
This is a classic example of litotes in Anglo-Saxon.
V. Examples of Litotes in Pop Culture
Ferris does not have what we consider to be an exemplary attendance record. (Principal Rooney, “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off”)
Principal Rooney is saying that Ferris has a very poor attendance record at school. In this case, he’s employing a tone that seems to be softening the blow of the criticism, but really he’s being sarcastic and dry.
And I’m thinking you weren’t burdened with an over-abundance of schooling, so why don’t we just ignore each other until we go away? (Malcolm Reynolds, “Firefly”)
Captain Reynolds is about to get into a fight with a man drinking in a bar, but he first insults him by calling him stupid. The litotes in this line masks the insult, but only slightly – just enough to confuse the drinker and convince the audience that he is, in fact, not the brightest crayon in the box.
VI. Related Terms
Sometimes litotes can come in the form of a double negative, such as “not unlike” meaning “similar to.” Obviously, one way to negate a word’s opposite is simply to negate the word twice! However, this is generally considered bad writing, and should be avoided, especially in school projects. Some teachers are not unhappy with double negatives, but others will mark them wrong every time.
Strictly speaking, a double negative is always using more words than you need: it’s more concise to say “happy” than “not unhappy,” so some writers prefer to drop the double negative. However, the litotes in “not unhappy” gives it a slightly different meaning from just “happy,” so it’s fine to use that in informal writing, poetry, etc.