In rhetoric, litotes ( //, US // or //) 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. 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. 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.
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."
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.
- ^ OED s.v.
- ^ The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, 4th ed. Houghton Mifflin Co, 2009. Accessed 29 Sept. 2010.
- ^ Encarta® World English Dictionary, N.Am. ed. Microsoft Corp, 2009. Accessed 29 Sept. 2010.
- ^ WordNet: An Electronic Lexical Database. Princeton Uni, 2010. Accessed 29 Sept. 2010.
- ^ Smyth 1920 p.680
- ^ Encyclopædia Britannica (1984) Micropædia VI p. 266 "litotes"
- Smyth, Herbert Weir (1920). Greek Grammar. Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press. pp. 680. ISBN 0-674-36250-0. http://books.google.com/books?id=TK9MAAAAMAAJ&dq=%23+Smyth,+Herbert+Weir+(1920).+Greek+Grammar&printsec=frontcover#PPA680,M1.
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