by Kate Woodford
A figure of speech that we often use in English is the understatement. An understatement is a statement that describes something as less important, serious, bad, etc. than it really is. There are two main uses for understatements. The first is to be polite:
The colour looks great on you but I think the jacket’s perhaps a bit tight?
A: I seem to recall Sophie quite likes talking.
B: Ha, yes! That’s something of an understatement.
(We can assume from speaker B’s response here that Sophie never stops talking.)
This week we’re looking at a particular type of understatement called litotes /laɪˈtəʊ.tiːz/. In litotes, you state an idea by saying the opposite of what you mean, by using a negative, (‘not’ or ‘no’), before it, for example:
Your colleague, Juan – he’s not the friendliest person I’ve ever met.
It’s not absolutely clear here whether Juan was just a bit unfriendly to the speaker, or was, in fact, the least friendly person the speaker had ever met. Litotes can be quite ambiguous (= having more than one possible meaning). This is perhaps why people often use it when they are criticizing others. (They cannot be accused of being too unkind!):
He’s not exactly handsome.
She’s not the brightest child I’ve ever taught.
Charlotte’s not the best at timekeeping, it’s true.
I think it’s fair to say she’s not the most athletic of all the students.
A number of idioms and fixed phrases contain litotes. Again, many of them are used for saying negative things about people:
She’s no oil painting (= she is very unattractive).
He’s no angel (= he sometimes behaves badly).
He’s not the sharpest tool in the shed (= he is not clever).
She’s not the sharpest knife in the drawer/block (= she is not clever).
Another form of litotes involves the use of a negative word (‘no’ or ‘not’) before an adjective with a negative prefix. This use has a rather formal feel to it:
Is that a new jacket? It’s not unlike (= it is a bit like) one you already own.
She inherited a not inconsiderable (= large) sum of money.
So that was an introduction to litotes. I hope you found it not uninteresting!