U is for Understatement
Written by Kerry E.B. Black
An understatement achieves just what its name implies. It downplays the obvious. It sets up a contrast between the description and reality. Understatement can involve modesty or irony and sarcasm. Its intent is determined by tone. It is a way of using language that makes a situation seem of less importance. However, in an interesting linguistic twist, understatement draws attention to the obvious and noticeable. It is akin to exaggerating and the opposite of Hyperbole (which is overstating). Understatement is the hallmark of dry humor.
When a sports team representative approaches the media after being shut out in a game and reports, “We did not do well,” the representative is guilty of understatement.
“Sheep lice don’t…, which is one reason they write so very little.” It is understatement because, of course, sheep lice don’t write at all. Lamont in “Bird on Bird.”
J.D. Salinger in “Catcher in the Rye” said, “It isn’t very serious. I have this tiny little brain tumor.” Since when is a brain tumor a small matter?
Washington Irving’s “Rip Van Winkle” took a little nap. J.K. Rowling’s “Harry Potter” villain, Voldemort, was a “little evil.” Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s defense of the fairies of Cottingly Glen caused him “some credibility issues.” P.T. Barnum’s Fiji Mermaid is “not precisely found in nature.”
Bob Newhart’s comedy routines frequently include understatement, which may be its own understatement.
Understatement is used in movies. “Cannibalism is frowned upon in most societies.” (Tim Burton’s “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory”) “It’s just a flesh wound,” said the Dark Knight after having his limbs lopped off. (Monty Python’s “Holy Grail.”)
It is also an incorporated poetic device. For example, “Fire and Ice” by Robert Frost contains these lines. “I think I know enough of hate/To say that for destruction ice/Is also great/And would suffice.”
Litotes, which use double-negative sentence structure to convey an opposite meaning, are a linguistic cousin to understatement. Saying of the hottest day of the year, “Heat is not rare today,” exemplifies litotes. Stating of the same day, “It is a bit warm outside,” is undertated. Understatement conveys less emotion than a situation warrants.