Mental Floss

Weekend Word Wrap: litotes

David K. Israel

Today's Wrap was going to be on hyperbole, but then I thought, nahhhh, litotes, sorta the opposite of hyperbole, would probably be much more interesting.

So if hyperbole is emphasis by exaggeration, as in "Honey, I love you to the moon and back," or "He drives a car the size of a blimp," litotes (lie-TOE-tees) emphasizes by weakening a statement using the negative of its opposite. A classic litotes is "not bad, not bad at all" when you really mean to say something is "pretty good." A couple other classics: "not many" for "a few" and "no big deal," to mean "it was nothing."

An early example of litotes can be found in the Bible. Paul (formerly called Saul) says in Acts 21:39, "I am a Jew, from Tarsus in Cilicia, a citizen of no ordinary city. Please let me speak to the people." No ordinary city is the negative of the opposite: "I come from the baddest city in Cilicia, so let me speak, yo!"

Litotes can also be used to make little jokes, too, as in "Well, he's no Einstein." Have some litotes to share? A famous example? An original? It's the interactive part of the Wrap, folks... and I'm not just whistling dixie, neither!