Today we consider these three easily confused literary terms – euphemism, understatement and litotes.
If you consider the fact that the translation for the English word “understatement” is “litote” in French, you can guess – and rightly so, that I’ve had to struggle to find my way through that maze…
Maybe you too?
Well, let’s attempt to define all three as we find a way out of the maze.
Euphemism is a way to soften the meaning of a possibly unpleasant or offensive word/idea.
It is often an expression, e.g. the famous “kick the bucket” which spares us the trouble of mentioning death, or “he is a special child”, which enables us to avoid saying he is disabled or “put in the family way” to avoid saying impregnated.
Understatement is somewhat different. Note that it consists in using restrained terms to downplay the matter when referring to facts or situations. It often stands in ironic contrast to what was expected.
Saying: “it’s a bit cold”, when it’s actually freezing and your blood is almost turned into ice, is to use an understatement to express how unpleasant the weather is. Understating what we want to express is generally a subtle way to highlight its unpleasant characteristics. Saying “he is good” tells us someone is fantastic at doing something.
Litotes can be defined as a kind of reverse understatement. It consists in using double negatives, which results in a positive meaning. It reinforces, intensifies the positive impact of what you want to say.
So when you say: “It isn’t so hot today”, while you’re sweating, you use one.
Famous formulas: “I am not unaware that” to suggest you know it pretty well that, or: “I was not a little upset”, implying you couldn’t be more.
It is also often handled with irony to hint at carefully hidden suggestions. When I say: “It is not uncommon for animals to comfort each other”, I mean they very much do, but I may also be trying to convey the idea that I wish humans could do it more.
Litotes may be a double-edged sword, when irony hides some truth that can’t be said directly.
“She is not bad-looking” may emphasize the fact she is very good-looking (positive meaning), but may also imply she doesn’t look that good after all (reverting it to negative connotations).
Does “It is not bad” mean: “It’s excellent”, or: “It is not really good”? The context can tell!
And to think Litotes comes from a Greek word meaning “simple”!
by Brigitte Poirson