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 Hiroshimain 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 9on 24 June, 1982, volcanic ashcauses all four engines of the Boeing 747aircraft 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 Eastwith 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)
Meiosis (figure of speech)
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