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In rhetoric, litotes (/ˈltətz/,[1] US /ˈlɪtətz/ or /lˈttz/) is a figure of speech in which understatement is employed for rhetoric effect,[2] principally via double negatives.[3][4] 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.[5] 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". It can be used to soften harsher expressions, similar to euphemism.

The use of litotes is common in English, Russian, German, Dutch, Hebrew, Aramaic, Greek, and French. They are features of Old English poetry and of the Icelandic sagas and are a means of much stoical restraint.[6]

The word litotes is of Greek origin, meaning "the property of being light (as opposed to heavy)", and is derived from the word litos meaning "plain, small or meager".[7]

George Orwell complained about overuse of the 'not un...' construction in his essay "Politics and the English Language".

Biblical litotes[edit]

  • Isaiah 55:11 "My shall not return unto Me void," meaning "My word...will have meaning and be important"
  • Jeremiah 30:19 "I will multiply them, and they shall not be few; I will make them honored, and they shall not be small," meaning "they shall be very many" and "they shall be very great"
  • Jeremiah 23:32 "They do not profit this people at all," meaning "they lead these people astray"
  • Jeremiah 7:31 “They have built the high places of Topheth, which is in the valley of the son of Hinnom, to burn their sons and their daughters in the fire, which I did not command," meaning "I have forbidden this atrocious practice"
  • Leviticus 10:1 "And they offered strange fire which he did not command" meaning "contrary to my express command"
  • Hebrews 7:14 "and in regard to that tribe Moses said nothing about priests" meaning "Moses has spoken of a tribe to be set apart and Judea is not it".

Classical litotes[edit]

The first time this word is mentioned is in a letter from Cicero in 56 B.C. In this letter the meaning of the word is "simplicity (or frugality) of life". Over time the meaning and the function of the word changed. It went from meaning simple to using the idea of understatement which involves double negatives. The idea was that you wanted to say something as impressive and unambiguous as possible. The pattern for early litotes was to start with two words, mainly a positive and a negative connected by a particle. This would give the word two meanings. After the redundancy is felt the positive part can be omitted. Due to the feeling of the phrase the reader will then have to work with the author or speaker to understand what the author is trying to convey.

In Old Norse, there were several types of litotes that got the same point across. These points are denied negatives, denied positives (this is probably the most used method), creating litotes without negating anything, and creating litotes using a negative adjective.[8]

Litotes and Ethos[edit]

Litotes can be used to establish ethos, or credibility, by expressing modesty or downplaying one's accomplishments to gain the audience's favor. In the book Rhetorica ad Herennium litotes is addressed as a member of The Figures of Thought known as "deminutio", or understatement. It is listed in conjunction with antenantiosis and meiosis, two other forms of rhetorical deminutio.[9]


Litotes: As a means of saying:
"Not bad." "Good."
"[...] no ordinary city." Acts 21:39 (NIV) "[...] a very special/different city."
"That [sword] was not useless / to the warrior now." (Beowulf lines 1575–1576) "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."
"He's no oil painting." "He's ugly."
"Not Unwelcome" (as on a doormat) "Welcome"
"Not unlike..." "Like..."

Other languages[edit]

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 another 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. (As with all litotes, this phrase can also be used with its literal meaning that the thing is not stupid but rather may be clever or occupy the middle ground between stupid and clever.)

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, as does German.

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 (cf. Winston Churchill's comment, since transformed into a snowclone, that "democracy is the worst form of government except for all the others").

In Latin, an example of litotes can be found in Ovid's Metamorphoses: "non semel" (bk. 1 ln. 692, "not one occasion"), meaning "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 at all foolish"), as a form of compliment (i.e., to say something was smart or clever). Another common Spanish phrase is "menos mal" (cf. Italian "meno male" above), meaning literally "less bad," but which is used in the same way as the English phrase "Thank goodness!"

In Turkish, it is quite common to say "Hiç fena değil!" ("Not so bad") as a form of compliment.

In Welsh, "Siomi ar yr ochr orau" ("To be disappointed on the best side") means "to be pleasantly surprised".

See also[edit]


  1. ^ OED s.v.
  2. ^ "Litotes". The Free Dictionary. Retrieved 24 June 2012. 
  3. ^ "Double negative". The Free Dictionary. Retrieved 24 June 2012. 
  4. ^ "WordNet Search". WordNet: An Electronic Lexical Database. Princeton University. Retrieved 1 July 2012. 
  5. ^ Smyth 1920 p.680
  6. ^ Encyclopædia Britannica (1984) Micropædia VI, p. 266. "Litotes".
  7. ^ Burton, Gideon. "Silva Rhetoricae". Brigham Young University. Retrieved 22 October 2013. 
  8. ^ Litotes in Old Norse, p. 1
  9. ^ Burton, Gideon. "Silva Rhetoricae". Brigham Young University. Retrieved 22 October 2013. 


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