Litotes are figures of rhetoric speech that use an understated statement of an affirmative by using a negative description. Rarely talked about, but commonly used in modern day conversations, litotes are a discreet way of saying something unpleasant without directly using negativity.

Sometimes called an ironical understatement and/or an avoidance of a truth which can be either positive or negative. Common examples: “I’m not feeling bad,” or “he’s definitely not a rocket scientist.” The actual meanings are: “I am feeling well,” and “he is not smart.” Litotes were used frequently in Old English Poetry and Literature, and can be found in the English, Russian, German, Dutch and French languages.

In everyday conversations in the 21st century, one may hear expressions like:

“not the brightest bulb”
“not a beauty”
“not bad”
“not unfamiliar”

These are all examples of negative litotes that mean the opposite: “a dim bulb, or dumb,” “plain in appearance,” “good,” and “knows very well.” Perhaps our society is not trying to be humorous or sarcastic, but kinder?

Sometimes double negatives in literature, music and films create a litote that was not intended; for instance in the Rolling Stones hit “I Can’t Get No Satisfaction,” actually means “I CAN receive satisfaction.”

Perhaps some best description litotes are found in the bible: take for instance, Jeremiah 30:19:

“I will multiply them, and they shall not be few; I will make them honored, and they shall not be small.” Correctly interpreted, he is saying “there will be many and they will be great or large.”

12 thoughts on “Litotes”

  1. So, if there’s a conversation along the lines of:

    “Is he smart?”
    “Well he’s not stupid”

    would this be an example of a litote? I’m pretty sure this is a literary device but I can remember the name for it.

      1. Agreed. The condition Endo Anaconda, (the lyricist), conveys is the state of “no satisfaction.” Not barely satisfied, or partially satisfied or even totally satisfied. The quest for a complete absence of satisfaction is apparently in vain.

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