From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Jump to: navigation, search

In rhetoric, litotes[1] is a figure of speech in which, rather than making a certain statement directly, a speaker expresses it even more effectively, or achieves emphasis, by denying its opposite. For example, rather than merely saying that a person is rather attractive (or even very attractive), one might say that he is "not unattractive."

By its nature, litotes is a form of understatement, always deliberate and with the intention of subtle emphasis. However, the interpretation of litotes can 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 with the British. It is a feature of Old English poetry and of the Icelandic sagas and is a means of much stoical restraint.[2]


[edit] Examples

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 sword was useful."
"That does not surprise me." "That is to be expected."
"He was not unfamiliar with the works of Dickens." "He was well acquainted with the works of Dickens."
"That was no big deal." "That was trivial."
"She is not so unkind." "She is kind."
"She was not a little cross." "She was very cross."
"I am not unwell." "I am fine."
"You're not wrong." (Australian English) "You're right."
"I couldn't disagree less." (double litotes) "I agree."
"We are not amused." "We are irritated."
"The outlook wasn't brilliant [...]" (Casey at the Bat). "The outlook was gloomy."

[edit] Other languages

Litotes is used in languages other than English.

In French, "il n'est pas antipathique" (trans.: "he is not disagreeable") is an example, actually meaning "il est très sympathique" (trans.: "he is nice"), though you don't want to admit it. Another typical example is : "C'est pas bête !" (It's not dumb) generally to describe a smart suggestion.

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 also "I love you".

In Chinese, the phrase "不错" (literally 'not wrong') is often used to present something as very good or correct.

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 German, the phrase "nicht schlecht" (transl.: "not bad") has a similar intonation dependent scope of meaning as its English counterpart.

[edit] See also

[edit] References

  1. ^ Pronounced IPA: /laɪˈtoʊtiːz/ according to British dictionaries (e.g. AskOxford); American dictionaries prefer the pronunciation IPA: /ˈlaɪtətiːz/ (e.g. American Heritage).
  2. ^ Encyclopaedia Britannica (1984) Micropedia VI p. 266 "litotes"
  • Smyth, Herbert Weir (1920). Greek Grammar. Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press. pp. 680. ISBN 0-674-36250-0. 
Personal tools