A Blast from the Past: Litotes

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Despite my embarrassment, I will have to admit that Eagleton stumped me with some of his literary terms: "There is no ‘literary' device--metonymy, synecdoche, litotes, chiasmus and so on—which is not quite intensively used in daily discourse" (Eagleton 5).  Therefore, I broke out Sharon Hamilton’s always useful Essential Literary Terms to look about litotes.  Even more to my chagrin, I find that the page in question already has my previous notes scrawled in the margins.  It would seem that litotes are a blast from the past.  Yes, indeed, I read this exact same definition about a year ago in LA150, but it would seem I forgot what it was since then.  Maybe this time, I will remember. 

Hamilton reminds me that: “Litotes (LY-toh-teez, from the Greek word for “simple” or “plain”) is a figure of thought in which a point is affirmed by negating its opposite.  It is a special kind of understatement, where the surface denial serves, through ironic contrast, to reinforce the underlying assertion” (57).

While Litotes are not particularly hard to use, in fact, as Eagleton points out most people use them on a daily basis, I do not find their reason for existence quite as “plain” as the word’s Greek meaning implies.  An example of litotes would be something like, “Literary criticism is no walk in the park.”  But why throw in the negative?  One could just as easily say, “Literary criticism sure is a walk in the park,” and the irony laced within the words is still apparent.  Both sentences can be understood to have the same thing, and if it is true that one should try to keep sentences positive (as I have been told by several English teachers), why throw in the extra level of complication with the one little word “no”?

1 Comments

Ahhh Greta! Nice one. I've been trying to interpret that definition myself. After reading your example and then rereading the definition I finally think I understand. I've said things like that before like, "I did crunches for ten minutes straight and it wasn't easy" instead of simply saying, "I did crunches for ten minutes straight today. Gosh was it rough."

I, too, had this experience with seeing words again that I forgot I ever saw. When I looked up the words, I found them highlighted in my text, showing me that I had already read and sadly forgotten them. I guess this is why Dr. Jerz says that knowledge is cheap. How we forget so easily? But we always have the option to look it up a third, fourth, fifth.....time right? I really hope not. I need to get a new internal hard drive for my brain. That may help.

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