AskDefine | Define litotes

Dictionary Definition

litotes n : understatement for rhetorical effect (especially when expressing an affirmative by negating its contrary); "saying `I was not a little upset' when you mean `I was very upset' is an example of litotes" [syn: meiosis]

User Contributed Dictionary



  • IPA: /lai.ˈto.tiz/
  • Schoolbook Phonetics: (lītōˊtēz)
  • Last Resort Phonetics: lie-TOH-teez


From λιτότης from λιτός.


litotes (plural: ~)
  1. A figure of speech in which the speaker emphasizes the magnitude of a statement by denying its opposite; a figure of speech in which understatement is used with negation to express a positive attribute; a form of irony
    • She's not the nicest person I know (to indicate meanness)
    • He's not exactly a rocket scientist (to indicate lack of intelligence)
    • Organizing these records is no small task (to indicate difficulty)

Extensive Definition

In rhetoric, litotes is a figure of speech in which, rather than making a certain statement directly, a speaker expresses it even more effectively, or achieves emphasis, by denying its opposite. For example, rather than merely saying that a person is rather attractive (or even very attractive), one might say that he or she is "not unattractive".
By its nature, litotes is a form of understatement, always deliberate and with the intention of subtle emphasis. However, the interpretation of litotes can depend on context, including cultural context. In speech, it may also depend on intonation and emphasis; for example, the phrase "not bad" can be said in such a way as to mean anything from "mediocre" to "excellent".
The use of litotes appeals specifically to certain cultures including the northern Europeans and is popular with the British. It is a feature of Old English poetry and of the Icelandic sagas and is a means of much stoical restraint.


Other languages

Litotes is used in languages other than English; in French, "il n'est pas antipathique" is an example, actually meaning "il est très sympathique".
In Chinese, the phrase "不错" (literally 'not wrong') is often used to present something as very good or correct.
In Latin, an example of litotes can be found in Ovid's Metamorphoses: "non semel" (bk. 1 ln. 692) => 'not one occasion'= 'on more than one occasion'


  • Greek Grammar
litotes in Bulgarian: Литота
litotes in German: Litotes
litotes in Spanish: Litotes
litotes in French: Litote
litotes in Galician: Lítote
litotes in Croatian: Litota
litotes in Indonesian: Litotes
litotes in Italian: Litote
litotes in Japanese: 緩叙法
litotes in Macedonian: Литота
litotes in Dutch: Litotes
litotes in Norwegian: Litotes
litotes in Polish: Litota
litotes in Portuguese: Litotes
litotes in Russian: Литота
litotes in Slovak: Litotes
litotes in Swedish: Litotes
litotes in Ukrainian: Літота
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