In rhetoric, litotes (/ /,, US: //), also known classically as antenantiosis or moderatour, is a figure of speech and form of verbal irony in which understatement is used to emphasize a point by stating a negative to further affirm a positive, often incorporating double negatives for effect. Litotes is a form of understatement, which can be in the form of meiosis, and is always deliberate with the intention of emphasis. However, the interpretation of negation may depend on context, including cultural context. In speech, litotes may also depend on intonation and emphasis; for example, the phrase "not bad" can be intonated differently so as to mean either "mediocre" or "excellent". Along the same lines, litotes can be used (as a form of auxesis), to euphemistically provide emphasis by diminishing the harshness of an observation; "He isn't the cleanest person I know" could be used as a means of indicating that someone is a messy person.
The use of litotes is common in English, Russian, German, Yiddish, Dutch, Hebrew, Aramaic, Greek, Ukrainian, Polish, Mandarin, French, Czech and Slovak, and is also prevalent in a number of other languages and dialects. It is a feature of Old English poetry and of the Icelandic sagas and is a means of much stoical restraint.
The word litotes is of Greek origin (λιτότης), meaning "simplicity", and is derived from the word λιτός, litos, meaning "plain, simple, small or meager".
The first known mention of litotes is in a letter from Cicero in 55 BC (De Oratore). Cicero uses the word to mean simplicity (or frugality) of life. Over time, however, the meaning and the function of the word changed from 'simple' to the idea of understatement that involves double negatives, a way to state things simply.
Old Norse had several types of litotes. These points are denied negatives ("She's not a terrible wife" meaning "she's a good wife"), denied positives ("He's not a great learner" meaning "he has difficulty learning"), creating litotes without negating anything, and creating litotes using a negative adjective ("Days spent in his home left him unenthused" meaning "he preferred to be out and about").
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. For example, a very accomplished artist might say "I'm not a bad painter", and by refraining from bragging but still acknowledging his skill, the artist is seen as talented, modest, and credible.
|Litotes||Instead of saying|
|"It's not my favorite..."||"I don't like it."|
|"Not too shabby!"||"Nice!"|
|"It's not the cheapest..."||"It's a somewhat expensive..."|
|"Not great, Bob!"||"Very lousy, Bob!"|
|"The weather isn't great."||"It's raining."|
|"It's not a masterpiece."||"It's mediocre."|
In Classical Greek, instances of litotes can be found as far back as Homer. In Book 24 of the Iliad, Zeus describes Achilles as follows: "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 the speaker is reluctant 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 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 (Pinyin: bù cuò, traditional characters 不錯, literally "not wrong") is often used to present something as very good or correct. In this way, it is distinct in meaning from the English "not bad" (though not "not bad at all") or the general use of the French pas mal. Also, the phrase 不简单 (pinyin bù jiǎn dān, traditional characters 不簡單, literally "not simple") is used to refer to an impressive feat.
In Danish, understatements using litotes are seen as characteristic of the Jutlandic dialect. A stereotypical example is the phrase det er ikke så ringe endda ("it is not even so bad"), which is used to mean "that's great".
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".
Perhaps the most common litote in Russian is неплохо (not bad). Somewhat unusually, it is permissible to say something is очень неплохо (very not bad) to signify that it is, in fact, very good. An example of litotes can be found in the Nikolai Gogol's The Government Inspector, in which the Mayor says: "There's no such thing as a man with no sins on his conscience", meaning "All men have sins on their conscience" (Act 1, Scene 1). In this case, it is used to downplay the Mayor's statement – a euphemism of sorts – making it less harsh than its understood meaning.
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 used in the same way as the English phrases "Thank goodness!" or "It's just as well".
In Swedish, it is quite common to use litotes. For example, when one chances to meet someone after a long time it is usual to say: Det var inte igår ("It wasn't yesterday").
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".
# Smyth, Herbert Weir (1920). Greek Grammar.