L is for Litote

Written by Kerry E.B. Black

Litote, also known as moderator, is a discreet use of language that describes an object by negating the opposite. Litotes uses double-negatives. It is sometimes a way to say something unpleasant without directly using negativity.

For example, “He’s no Fred Astaire,” might define a less-than-graceful dancer.

Litotes can be used to disarm potential opponents and avoid controversy while emphasizing a point.

“The grave’s a fine place, but none, I think, do there embrace,” said Andrew Marvell in “To His Coy Mistress.”

Litotes can allow a speaker avoid boasting. “I’m no Einstein” or “no rocket scientist.”

They can also convey a veiled threat. William Shakespeare in King Lear has a character state, “Not in this land shall he remain…” Shakespeare was fond of using litotes, as was William Wordsworth, who often used “not seldom” within his poetry.

Litotes can be found in the Bible. Jeremiah 30 says, “I will multiply them, and they shall not be few.”

In a letter from Abigail Adams to John Adams in 1776, she makes use of the rhetoric device. “I cannot say that I think you are generous to the ladies; for whilst you are proclaiming peace and goodwill to men, emancipating all nations, you insist upon retaining an absolute power over wives.”

Thus, litotes draw attention to the point in a less-than-direct fashion.

The word derives from ancient Greek and translates from “plainness” or “simplicity.”