Litotes (lie-TOH-tees) is an expression that affirms an idea by contradicting its negative. Though often used to convey positive thoughts, it can be used for negative thoughts as well. This figure of speech is more accessible and familiar than any definition could make it sound, but essentially, litotes is a lighter, less harsh version of verbal irony.
The word litotes comes from Latin via the Greek litos, meaning “plain,” and was first used in English in 1589.
Examples of Litotes
Here is a simple formula for creating litotes.
First, decide on the sentiment to convey; for example, “This coffee is very good.” Then, remove the adverb of degree—in this case, the adverb is very. The statement becomes “This coffee is good.” Next, negate it: “This coffee is not good.” Finally, swap out the adjective (good) for its antonym (bad). The new statement is “This coffee is not bad,” which still conveys the sentiment that the coffee is good without using those exact words.
Here are more examples:
- “It’s not the nicest place to stay.” The speaker is describing a place with subpar accommodations.
- “The films aren’t dissimilar.” The speaker means that the films have a lot in common.
- “That wasn’t the worst sandwich I’d ever eaten.” The speaker is pleasantly surprised by the quality of the sandwich.
- “Let’s just say you’re no Julia Child.” The speaker is gently insulting someone who prepared a meal for them.
Litotes and Other Figures of Speech
Litotes vs. Idioms
Idioms are culturally understood expressions with figurative or metaphorical meanings that differ from their literal meanings. Litotes sometimes appears in idioms. For example, to chide someone for overcomplicating a simple task, their friend might say, “It’s not rocket science.”
Litotes vs. Meiosis
These terms work a bit differently, though they achieve roughly the same end. Meiosis is an understatement used for dramatic emphasis. Saying excellent coffee is “pretty good” is meiosis; saying it’s “not bad” is litotes.
Why Writers Use Litotes
For such a specific literary device, litotes is surprisingly versatile. It can soften an inadvertent insult or turn a seemingly benign phrase into a barb. It’s also a useful tactic for description because, sometimes, saying what something isn’t can go a long way.
The problem with such a handy device is that people won’t automatically understand the intent, particularly since litotes can be ambiguous. Say someone is describing their acquaintance as “not poor.” The statement is either a soft way of saying they’re scraping by or a sarcastic way of describing their affluence. When spoken aloud, intent can be inferred from the speaker’s tone. With the written word, punctuation can help. An exclamation can tip readers off to the speaker’s positive mood, while an ellipsis could indicate a dismissive shrug or an eyeroll.
Litotes in Popular Culture
Litotes can be found all over pop culture, from song lyrics to advertising.
In her 1998 hit about ending a relationship on the grounds of infidelity, Whitney Houston sings “It’s not right but it’s okay.” Saying “It’s not right” acknowledges that her partner’s actions were wrong, but Houston is okay with it because now she can pursue a better life (and a better partner) for herself.
In dessert company Sara Lee’s tagline, they playfully aver that “nobody doesn’t like” them. This intentionally downplays the fact that people like them very much. In this way, the tagline count as both litotes (because it negates the word nobody) and meiosis (because its point is made through understatement).
Examples in Literature
1. T.S. Eliot, “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”
This epic poem is the heart song of a man cowering in midlife crisis. In the following lines, the extent of his loss of self-confidence is made clear:
But though I have wept and fasted, wept and prayed,
Though I have seen my head (grown slightly bald) brought in upon a platter,
I am no prophet—and here’s no great matter
By saying he is “no prophet,” the narrator is conveying that he’s not a person of consequence. This, his words hold no value—they have “no great matter” in the world.
2. The Bible, Jeremiah 30:19
In this verse, God promises to bring prosperity back to his people:
I will multiply them, and they shall not be few; I will make them honored, and they shall not be small.
Here, litotes is meant to reassure the audience that He will keep his word. “They shall not be small” means His people will be brought back to glory and thus regarded highly.
3. William Shakespeare, King Lear
Betrayal is a running theme in one of Shakespeare’s most heartbreaking tragedies. In Act II, Scene 1, the elderly Earl of Gloucester’s illegitimate son, Edmund, is that his half-brother Edgar —Gloucester’s legitimate son—has assaulted him for saying he would not kill Gloucester. Their father is wounded to hear of his son’s deceit and sternly vows: “Not in this land shall he remain uncaught.” This is a promise that Edgar will be brought to justice, as it negates the possibility that Edgar will get away with his supposed schemes.
Further Resources on Litotes
This research article by Yin Yaun looks at the many uses of litotes in an ancient Chinese philosophy book called The Analects.
Martin Shovel wrote an exploration of litotes for The Guardian.