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January 29, 2007

Litotes - A form of Understatement

Murfin and Ray, Bedford Glossary of Critical and Literary Terms -- Jerz EL312 (Literary Criticism)

While reading Eagleton's "Introduction: What is Literature?" I came across the mention of several literary devices, one of which I did not recognize: litotes (top of page 6 if you were wondering). So, I looked it up in my trusty Bedford Glossary of Critical and Literary Terms and was extremely excited to realize that it is a device Melville uses very often in Benito Cereno. Basically, it it is a form of understatement that operates by negating the opposite of what is really meant. A good way to remember this device is to think of it as the opposite of a hyperbole and to see an example. So here is one right from the beginning of Benito Cereno (the one I actually noticed before I knew what it was):

"But, in one language, and as with one voice, all poured out a common tale of suffering; in which the Negresses, of whom there were not a few, exceeded others in their dolorous vehemence" (491, emphasis mine).

I instantly noticed this phrase "of whom there were not a few" the first time I read it, thinking wow, that was an interesting choice, but saying "of whom there were many" is not nearly as effective. It is as if there are so many, that coming right out and saying so doesn't really show you how overwhelming the numbers really are. Especially since, at least these days, people exaggerate so often that doing the opposite actually works better and makes you notice this detail.

Posted by LorinSchumacher at January 29, 2007 6:51 PM


Wait, I don't get it. The opposite of a hyerbole? Can you give me another example?

Posted by: Valerie Masciarelli at January 30, 2007 4:48 PM

Lorin, to be honest I never heard of this word either. After reading your blog, I understand the idea that the less you say, the more overwhelming and compelling a sentence could become.
But if you could give another example, it would help me a little more.
Thanks =)

Posted by: Denamarie at January 31, 2007 9:38 PM

HEY! That word was in the definition I read for Meiosis! Good choice! Did you ever wonder why there are so many different words to express the same feeling or outlook? Understatements must have been popular to get two other words to represent it!

Posted by: Tiffany at February 1, 2007 8:32 AM

The first thing I thought of was understated beauty (I know, weird connection, but I get it). Anyway - the point I'm trying to make is simple - the more understated the beauty, the more beautiful the final result - so why shouldn't it be the same for emphasis? The less you say, the more the reader gets out of it.

Posted by: Diana Geleskie at February 1, 2007 12:02 PM

I didn't overlook the glaring lack of omisssion of not a few instances of litotes that didn't hide their presence in any small way.

Posted by: Dennis G. Jerz [TypeKey Profile Page] at February 1, 2007 12:10 PM

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