This article has multiple issues. Please help improve it or discuss these issues on the talk page. (Learn how and when to remove these template messages)(Learn how and when to remove this template message)
In rhetoric, litotes (//, US: // or //; 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, more specifically meiosis, and is always deliberate with the intention of emphasis. 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 intonated differently so as to mean either "mediocre" or "excellent". Along the same lines litotes can be used as a euphemism to diminish 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, 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, meaning "simple," and is derived from the word litos meaning "plain, small or meager".
The first known mention of lilotes is in a letter from Cicero in 56 B.C. 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 and ethosEdit
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:||As a means of saying:|
|"Not too shabby!"||"Nice!"|
|"Not OK."||"Completely unacceptable."|
|"Not trivial."||"Very Complex."|
|"[...] 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 had a use for the sword now."|
|"He was not unfamiliar with the works of Dickens."||"He was well acquainted with the works of Dickens."|
This section does not cite any sources. (August 2015) (Learn how and when to remove this template message)
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.
New Testament GreekEdit
An almost universally unnoticed use of litotes is in the prayer that Jesus taught, commonly called "The Lord's Prayer". In the petition "lead us not into temptation but deliver us from evil", the words "not into" are litotes for "away from". Jesus was using "antithetic parallelism" (common in Hebrew Psalms & prophets). Jesus could have expressed this straightforwardly as "lead us away from temptation and deliver us from evil", using "synthetic parallelism" (also common). As a translation, this would be simple and clear. It would be a completely accurate expression of the meaning of Jesus' words, but it would not be a word-for-word literal translation. We mislead ourselves when we pray with the emphasis on these words: not INTO TEMPTATION. We need to realise that Jesus was actually using a form of speech and therefore use this emphasis: NOT INTO temptation. This basic literary understanding eliminates the contradiction with the New Testament letter of James, chapter 1 verse 13, "When tempted, no one should say 'God is tempting me.' For God cannot be tempted by evil, nor does he tempt anyone." OR if the word is translated "trials" or "testings" rather than "temptations", it eliminates the contradiction with verses 2 & 3 in the same chapter of James, "Consider it pure joy, my brothers & sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing/trying of your faith develops perseverance." No small reward from merely understanding that Jesus was using a common Hebrew (human!) way of speaking!
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 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" 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 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 Korean, litotes are sometimes used for emphasis. For example, "실패라 안할 수 없다." (silpae-ra haji anhal su eopda) literally means "It’s impossible to not call it a failure."
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 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."
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"). Descriptions in conversation are often expressed by litotes: "Det var inte världens minsta bil direkt." ("That's not exactly the smallest car in the world"); "Det var ingen dålig väg" ("This isn't a bad road").
- OED s.v.
- "Litotes". The Free Dictionary. Retrieved 24 June 2012.
- "Double negative". The Free Dictionary. Retrieved 24 June 2012.
- "WordNet Search". WordNet: An Electronic Lexical Database. Princeton University. Retrieved 1 July 2012.
- Smyth 1920 p.680
- "litotes (figure of speech)". About.com. Retrieved 31 October 2014.
- "litotes". Dictionary.com. Retrieved 31 October 2014.
- Encyclopædia Britannica (1984) Micropædia VI, p. 266. "Litotes".
- Burton, Gideon. "Silva Rhetoricae". Brigham Young University. Retrieved 22 October 2013.
- Litotes in Old Norse, p. 1
- "not so shabby/not too shabby definition, meaning - what is not so shabby/not too shabby in the British English Dictionary & Thesaurus - Cambridge Dictionaries Online". Dictionary.cambridge.org. Retrieved April 2, 2015.
- Smyth, Herbert Weir (1920). Greek Grammar. Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press. p. 680. ISBN 0-674-36250-0.
- Hollander, Lee M. (1938). "Litotes in Old Norse". 53 (1). PMLA. pp. 1–33. JSTOR 458399.
- Lanham, Richard A. (1991). A Handlist of Rhetorical Terms (2nd. ed.). Berkeley: University of California Press. pp. 95–96. ISBN 0-520-07669-9.