There isn’t an overabundance of understatement around. Litotes, a deliberate rhetorical downplaying to suggest the opposite (eg: “no mean feat” = “a considerable achievement”), has fallen out of favour in this era of sales pitch, PR puff and synthetic enthusiasm. The bastard offspring of Mr Double Negative and Mrs Euphemism, Litotes is no match for its crowd-pleasing siblings Irony and Sarcasm or its all-dominant polar opposite Hyperbole. This is a not inconsequential loss.
The last redoubt of Litotes is in the ubiquitous, knee-jerk colloquialism “not bad”, which tends to mean something more than merely “good”. Otherwise, the useful trope only surfaces as arch pussy-footing (“I wouldn’t say no”), exhausted cliche (“it ain’t rocket science”), self-reverential pathos (“regrets, I’ve had a few”) or phoney humility (any Oscar winner’s acceptance speech).
Pronounced lie-toe-tees, it is one of the few words in English (such as “sheep”) to have the same form whether singular or plural. In Welsh it is lleihad, from llai meaning “less”, illustrating the Welsh language’s deep roots in Indo-European linguistics – Litotes being of ancient Greek origin from litos meaning “plain” or “meagre”.
The special appeal of Litotes is its implication that less is indeed more, an attitude that is the very antithesis of contemporary society’s vulgar obsession with growth, size and accumulation. It is peculiarly litotic then that the supreme utiliser of this figure of speech was a woman who headed up the world’s most greedy and over-reaching Empire: Queen Victoria (1819-1901). It was she who took the art of stoical tongue-biting to dizzy levels of skill with the exquisite “We are not amused”. Her courtiers would have been in no doubt that what the inbred professional widow actually meant was “I am really pissed off”. Well, I thought I would dispense a little cultural bon mots today, but now I must dash, our bowel has seen emptier days…