Today, we’ll shine some light on “litotes” (pronounce it “LIGHT-uh-teez” or light-OH-teez).
Litotes is no ordinary word, and even though you, gentle reader, are no fool, it will require no small amount of skill on my part to define it for you.
Even if you are not the sharpest axe in the toolshed, you should have picked up on some of the hints in the previous sentence. Litotes are figures of speech in which the speaker uses ironic understatement and negatives (often double negatives) to emphasize a positive. Litotes describe a person or thing by negating opposites; that is, describing something by telling us what it’s not.
“She’s no spring chicken” (She’s really old!)
“He’s not unattractive” (What a hunk!)
“That piece? Well, it was not an inconsiderable sum” (It cost a bloody fortune!)
“But that’s all right; he’s not without means” (He can afford it; he’s filthy rich!)
The Greek word “litotes” (plainness, simplicity) is derived from “litos,” meaning “plain, small, smooth, meager.” Go even further back, and it’s related to a root word meaning “slippery.” Yes, I consider litotes to be slippery, “weasel words,” rather than direct statements.
Many politicians have mastered (“are not unfamiliar with”) the art of using litotes. They may say, “You would not be mistaken to characterize my position in that manner” (“You caught me; that’s my position, at least until my next flip-flop”). Or, “I’m not unaware of the allegations against me” (“I’ve got my lawyer on speed-dial, so maybe I can beat this rap”). Or even, “I’ll work hard for this new gun-control legislation. It is not unlike the bill proposed in our last session, and passing it will be no small accomplishment” (“It’s exactly the same bill; it had no chance of passing then, and it has no chance now, but I can’t afford to offend the gun nuts in my district, because they all vote”).
Just to reinforce our understanding of litotes, let’s finish up with another few examples:
“Try the chocolate-covered bacon. You won’t be sorry” (You’ll love it!)
“Your child does not have what we consider to be an abundance of self-control” (That brat is totally out of control!)
“If you live in the country, it’s not uncommon to find the occasional mouse in your pantry” (We’re totally overrun with rodents. They’re everywhere!)
“I believe I understand litotes better now, in no small part because of Eric’s blog” (I can’t believe I finally learned something from that moron, Eric)