Understatement

Understatement is a form of speech in which a lesser expression is used than what would be expected. This is not to be confused with euphemism, where a polite phrase is used in place of a harsher or more offensive expression.

Understatement is a staple of humor in English-speaking cultures, especially in British humour. For example, in "Monty Python's The Meaning of Life", a suburban dinner party is invaded by Death, who wears a long black cloak and carries a scythe. He is the Grim Reaper; the party is over; the guests must all go with him. "Well," says one party guest, "that's cast rather a gloom over the evening, hasn't it?" In another scene, an Army officer has just lost his leg. When asked how he feels, he looks down at his bloody stump and responds, "Stings a bit."

Notable historic examples

Event: The well-known Victorian critique of Cleopatra's behavior: "So unlike the home life of our own dear Queen!"

Event: British Admiral David Beatty had just watched two of his battle-cruisers explode and disintegrate under German fire at the Battle of Jutland, May 31 1916. Comment: "There seems to be something wrong with our bloody ships today..." [http://www.davidhurst.com/bloodyships.htm]

Event: Emperor Hirohito of Japan, discussing the atomic bombing of Hiroshima in his first radio broadcast (15 August 1945). Comment: "The war situation has developed not necessarily to Japan’s advantage."

Event: During the Kuala Lumpur to Perth leg of British Airways Flight 9 on 24 June, 1982, volcanic ash causes all four engines of the Boeing 747 aircraft to fail. Although pressed for time as the aircraft rapidly lost altitude, Captain Eric Moody still managed to make an announcement to the passengers. Comment: "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."

Event: A 2006 interview regarding current affairs in the Middle East with the Egyptian Foreign Minister. Comment by the Foreign Minister: "I think there's a problem between Shias and Sunnis". (BBC World Service, 23:50, Australian Eastern Standard Time, May 18 2006)

See also

* Litotes
* Hyperbole
* Meiosis (figure of speech)


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  • understatement — UK US /ˌʌndəˈsteɪtmənt/ noun [C or U] ► a statement that something is much smaller, much less important, or much less serious than it really is: »It s an understatement to say the workers are worried about their futures. with understatement »The… …   Financial and business terms

  • understatement — [œndœʀstɛtmənt] n. m. ÉTYM. V. 1960; mot angl. (1799), de under « au dessous », et statement « assertion ». ❖ ♦ Anglic. Affirmation en dessous de la vérité; litote. REM. Terme surtout employé par évocation d une forme d humour et de diplomatie… …   Encyclopédie Universelle

  • Understatement — Un der*state ment, n. The act of understating, or the condition of being understated; that which is understated; a statement below the truth. [1913 Webster] …   The Collaborative International Dictionary of English

  • understatement — noun conservative estimate, grossly inadequate representation, minimization, misrepresentation, underestimation, undervaluation Burton s Legal Thesaurus. William C. Burton. 2006 …   Law dictionary

  • understatement — 1799, from UNDER (Cf. under) + STATEMENT (Cf. statement). Understated, with ref. to clothing, is recorded from 1957 …   Etymology dictionary

  • understatement — /andersˈte(i)tment, ingl. ˌʌndəˈsteɪtmənt/ [vc. ingl., deriv. di to understate «attenuare, minimizzare»] s. m. inv. attenuazione, minimizzazione □ discrezione, sobrietà CONTR. esagerazione, enfasi, ostentazione …   Sinonimi e Contrari. Terza edizione

  • understatement — n. 1) to make an understatement 2) to go in for understatement 3) (misc.) a masterpiece of understatement; the understatement of the year * * * [ˌʌndə steɪtmənt] the understatement of the year (misc.) a masterpiece of understatement to go in for… …   Combinatory dictionary

  • understatement — noun ADJECTIVE ▪ gross, massive, vast ▪ ‘A little strange’ is a gross understatement. ▪ typical ▪ with typical British understatement …   Collocations dictionary

  • understatement — [[t]ʌ̱ndə(r)steɪtmənt[/t]] understatements 1) N COUNT If you say that a statement is an understatement, you mean that it does not fully express the extent to which something is true. To say I m disappointed is an understatement... He was getting… …   English dictionary

  • Understatement — Untertreibung (engl. Understatement) (der Gegensatz ist Übertreibung) wird oft als Stilmittel eingesetzt. Oft dient eine Litotes der Untertreibung. Auch wird der Begriff Understatement häufig in der Konzeption von Werbung und Marketing benutzt.… …   Deutsch Wikipedia

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