Not a bad use of language!

In the world of litotes, two double negatives make a positive – Roopa Banerjee

Hey, not bad!” When someone says that after you play Chopin (Polish composer Frédéric François Chopin) on the piano, you would be right to experience pride. ‘Not bad’ means you were good. This figure of speech wherein two double negatives make a positive is called litote.

Litotes use understatement to emphasise a point by stating a negative to further affirm a positive, often incorporating double negatives for effect. For example, ‘not too shabby’ for ‘nice’ and ‘not unwelcome’ for ‘welcome’. Like most rhetorical phrases, litotes have a Greek origin. It is derived from the Greek adjective litos meaning ‘plain, small or meagre’.

People often unconsciously use litotes. Whenever you combine a negative with another negative to express something positive, you’re using litotes. Litotes are not uncommon. Please note that I have employed a litote — not uncommon!

Sometimes, litotes are used to reduce the harshness of the observation. When a teacher wants to encourage a student even though her assignment is not up to the mark, she is likely to say ‘I am not happy with this’ instead of declaring ‘I didn’t like it’. When a child keeps her room untidy, her mother might tone down her criticism by murmuring, ‘She isn’t the tidiest person around’.

The extent of emphasis is entirely dependent on the context. ‘Not bad’ could mean anything from mediocre to excellent. Thus, litotes are similar to euphemisms.

The first recorded use of a litote is in a letter written by Roman philosopher Cicero in 56 BCE. The word is used by Cicero to mean ‘simplicity of life’. As time progressed, litote transformed from ‘simple’ to understatement with the use of double negatives. In early usage, litotes invariably started with two words, mostly a positive and a negative connected by a particle. This gave the word two meanings. This was the classical litote. In classical Greek, litotes can be found as far back as Homer. For example, in Book 24 of the Iliad, Zeus comments that Achilles is ‘neither unthinking, nor unseeing’. Zeus meant that the great warrior was shrewd and sensible.

Litotes are also used to convey ethos. Such usage is to establish modesty or understatement of one’s own qualities. A sculptor may say, ‘Oh, I am not a bad sculptor’. This helps him refrain from boasting and yet establishes him as a person of considerable skill and talent.

Why would a writer or speaker use litotes? Well, litotes cause a reader or listener to stop and introspect about the statement. They are very effective in public speaking as they engage the listener’s attention.

Litotes Examples

He’s no fool = He is smart
That was no pleasant journey = It was a horrible journey
It was not unlike my dream = It was just like my dream
Not a bad day’s work = It was a good day’s work
I’m not doing this for my health = I have to (or am being forced) to do this

Activity

Spot the litotes in the passage given below:

He is not the cleverest person I have ever met although he is not an ordinary man. He is not the happiest person around even after winning the lottery. A million dollars is no small amount, after all. He is not doing badly at all considering he is not as young as he used to be. I am not unfamiliar with success stories like these. They don’t go right for most people.

Answers

Not the cleverest, not an ordinary man, not the happiest, no small amount, not doing badly, not as young as he used to be, not unfamiliar, don’t go right.

Without using litotes, this passage would have been very harsh — He is a stupid person although he is an extraordinary man. He is a sad person even after winning the lottery. A million dollars is a big amount, after all. He is doing well considering he is older than he used to be. I am familiar with success stories like these. They go wrong for most people.

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