In rhetoric, litotes (play /ˈltɵtz/,[1] US /ˈlɪtətz/ or /lˈttz/) is a figure of speech in which understatement is employed for rhetorical effect when an idea is expressed by a denial of its opposite, principally via double negatives.[2][3][4] For example, rather than saying that something is attractive (or even very attractive), one might merely say it is "not unattractive."

Litotes is a form of understatement, always deliberate and with the intention of emphasis.[5] However, the interpretation of negation may depend on context, including cultural context. In speech, it may also depend on intonation and emphasis; for example, the phrase "not bad" can be said in such a way as to mean anything from "mediocre" to "excellent."

The use of litotes appeals specifically to certain cultures including the northern Europeans and is popular in English, Russian, and French. They are features of Old English poetry and of the Icelandic sagas and are a means of much stoical restraint.[6]

George Orwell complained about overuse of the 'not un...' construction in his essay "Politics and the English Language".



Litotes: As a means of saying:
"Not bad." "Good."
"[…] no ordinary city." Acts 21:39 (NIV) "[…] a very impressive city."
"That [sword] was not useless / to the warrior now." (Beowulf) "The warrior has a use for the sword now."
"He was not unfamiliar with the works of Dickens." "He was acquainted with the works of Dickens."
"She is not as young as she was." "She's old."
"Not unlike..." "Like..."
"You are not wrong." "You are correct."

Other languages

In Classical Greek, instances of litotes can be found as far back as Homer. In Book 24 of the Iliad, Zeus describes Achilles like this: "οὔτε γάρ ἔστ᾽ ἄφρων οὔτ᾽ ἄσκοπος..." (line 186), "he is neither unthinking, nor unseeing", meaning that he is both wise and prudent.

In French, "pas mal" (not bad) is used similarly to the English, while "il n'est pas antipathique" ("he is not disagreeable") is an example, actually meaning "il est très sympathique" ("he is nice"), though you don't want to admit it. Another typical example is : "Ce n'est pas bête!" ("It's not stupid") generally said to admit a clever suggestion without showing oneself as too enthusiastic.

One of the most famous litotes of French literature is to be found in Pierre Corneille's Le Cid (1636). The heroine, Chimène, says to her lover Rodrigue, who just killed her father: "Va, je ne te hais point" ("Go, I hate you not"), meaning "I love you".

In Chinese, the phrase "不错" (literally "not wrong") is often used to present something as very good or correct (i.e., distinct in meaning from the English "not bad" or the general use of the French "pas mal"). Also, the phrase "不简单" (literally "not simple") is used to refer to an impressive feat. Similarly, in Dutch, the phrase "niet slecht" (also literally meaning "not bad") is often used to present something as very good or correct.

In Italian, meno male (literally "less bad") is similar to the English expression, "So much the better" - used to comment that a situation is more desirable than its negative.

In Latin, an example of litotes can be found in Ovid's Metamorphoses: "non semel" (bk. 1 ln. 692) => 'not one occasion'= 'on more than one occasion'. Some common words are derived from litotes: "nonnulli" from "non nulli" ("not none") is understood to mean "several", while "nonnumquam" from "non numquam" ("not never") is used for "sometimes".

In Spanish, it is usual to say "No es nada tonto" ("It's not foolish"), as a form of compliment (i.e., to say something was smart or clever).

In Turkish, it is quite common to say "Hiç fena değil!" ("It isn't bad at all!"), as a form of compliment.

See also


  1. ^ OED s.v.
  2. ^ The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, 4th ed. Houghton Mifflin Co, 2009. Accessed 29 Sept. 2010.
  3. ^ Encarta® World English Dictionary, N.Am. ed. Microsoft Corp, 2009. Accessed 29 Sept. 2010.
  4. ^ WordNet: An Electronic Lexical Database. Princeton Uni, 2010. Accessed 29 Sept. 2010.
  5. ^ Smyth 1920 p.680
  6. ^ Encyclopædia Britannica (1984) Micropædia VI p. 266 "litotes"


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  • Litotes — Saltar a navegación, búsqueda La litotes, lítotes o litote, también llamada atenuación, es una figura retórica, relacionada con la ironía y el eufemismo, en que, para afirmar algo, se disminuye o niega lo que se dice. Ejemplos ¡Estás poco a gusto …   Wikipedia Español

  • lítotes — o litotes. (Del b. lat. litŏtes, y este del gr. λιτότης). f. Ret. atenuación (ǁ figura retórica) …   Enciclopedia Universal

  • litotes — lítotes o litotes. (Del b. lat. litŏtes, y este del gr. λιτότης). f. Ret. atenuación (ǁ figura retórica) …   Enciclopedia Universal

  • lítotes — (plural lítotes) sustantivo femenino 1. Área: retórica Figura retórica que consiste en moderar una opinión o una afirmación negando lo contrario de lo que desea afirmar: No me molestas nada en vez de estoy muy a gusto contigo es una lítotes.… …   Diccionario Salamanca de la Lengua Española

  • litotes — lítotes o litotes (Del b. lat. litŏtes, y este del gr. λιτότης). f. Ret. atenuación (ǁ figura retórica) …   Diccionario de la lengua española

  • lítotes — o litotes (Del b. lat. litŏtes, y este del gr. λιτότης). f. Ret. atenuación (ǁ figura retórica) …   Diccionario de la lengua española

  • litotes — rhetorical figure in which an affirmative is expressed by the negative of its opposite, from Gk. litotes, lit. plainness, simplicity, from litos smooth, plain, small, meager, from PIE root * (s)lei slimy, sticky, slippery (hence smooth ); see… …   Etymology dictionary

  • litotes — pronounced liy toh teez or li toh teez, is a figure of speech in which an assertion is made by means of understatement or denial of an opposite, as when St Paul declared that he was ‘a citizen of no mean city’ (Acts 21:39). Typical modern… …   Modern English usage

  • litotes — [līt′ə tēz΄, lī tōt′ēz] n. [Gr litotēs < litos, smooth, simple, plain, akin to leios: see LIME1] understatement for effect, esp. such understatement in which something is expressed by a negation of the contrary (Ex.: not a few regrets) litotic …   English World dictionary

  • Litotes — Li to*tes (l[imac] t[ o]*t[=e]z), n. [NL., fr. Gr. lito ths, from lito s plain, simple.] (Rhet.) A diminution or softening of statement for the sake of avoiding censure or increasing the effect by contrast with the moderation shown in the form of …   The Collaborative International Dictionary of English

  • Litŏtes — (v. gr.), die Milderung, Geringfügigkeit, eine rhetorische Figur, nach welcher man einen scheinbar verkleinernden (mildernden) Ausdruck wählt, um die Sache desto mehr hervorzuheben, also mehr sagt, als man zu sagen scheint, z.B. ich bringe Dir… …   Pierer's Universal-Lexikon

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