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In rhetoric, litotes[1] is a figure of speech in which a certain statement is expressed by denying its opposite. For example, rather than merely saying that a person is attractive (or even very attractive), one might say they are "not unattractive".

Litotes is a form of understatement, always deliberate and with the intention of emphasis.[2] 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 in English, Russian and French. It is a feature of Old English poetry and of the Icelandic sagas and is a means of much stoical restraint.[3]



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."
"He was not unfamiliar with the works of Dickens." "He was well acquainted with the works of Dickens."
"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." "You're right."
"I couldn't disagree less." (double litotes) "I agree."
"These examples are not terribly difficult to come up with" "These examples are obvious."

Other languages

Litotes is also used in languages other than English.

In French, "il n'est pas antipathique" ("he is not disagreeable") is an example, actually meaning "il est très sympathique" ("he is nice"), though you don't want to admit it. Another typical example is : "C'est pas bête!" ("It's not stupid") generally to describe a clever 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: "Vas, 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, and in Italian meno male ("less bad") is understood as "good".

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" ("not bad") has a similar intonation-dependent scope of meaning as its English counterpart.

See also


  1. ^ pronounced /laɪˈtoʊtiːz/ according to British dictionaries (e.g., AskOxford); American dictionaries prefer the pronunciation /ˈlaɪtətiːz/ (e.g. American Heritage).
  2. ^ Smyth 1920 p.680
  3. ^ Encyclopaedia Britannica (1984) Micropedia VI p. 266 "litotes"



1911 encyclopedia

Up to date as of January 14, 2010
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