Etymology and Meanings of Literary Device Litotes
Etymologically, the term litotes, as its pronunciation shows, is a Greek derivative of the same word, having the same spellings. In the Grecian language, its root is litos which means smooth and plain. Litotes also means simplicity and plainness.
Literally, it means simple and unadorned style in writing or frugal and small in quantity. The term, however, finds its excessive use in rhetoric but is also common in literature.
Definition of Literary Device Litotes
In literary terms, it is an understatement used as verbal irony. It is an integral part of the figures of speech. It often uses double negatives to imply positive or affirmative meanings. Also, sometimes it is entirely a deliberate use of double negatives, while at other times, it is a cultural more (convention) such as in African American pidgin English. The other important things in its usage include context, text, and culture. It is akin to using a euphemism that means glossing over the rough usage of a word.
Common Examples of Litotes
- It is not that it is not rocket science.
- Neither are you asking, nor am I telling you.
- He is one of the brightest and dumbest fellows.
- I don’t refuse to accept your proposal.
- They often do not try to fail yet they fail.
Usage in Rhetoric
In rhetoric, litotes is a figure of thought. Two other figures are antenantiosis (deliberate understatement) and meiosis (intentional understatement). The most common use of this term tends to establish the ethos of a person using rhetoric as a tool. One example is of Oedipus as he uses double negative when placating the Thebans saying, “I am not sleeping, you are not waking me.” Both negatives have shown positive meanings in that he is not bragging and not underestimating but showing his modest and balanced approach.
Literary Examples of Litotes
Example # 1
From Hamlet by William Shakespeare
Ha, ‘swounds, I should take it, for it cannot be
But I am pigeon-livered, and lack gall
To make oppression bitter, or ere this
I should ha’ fatted all the region kites
With this slave’s offal.
These lines occur in Hamlet by William Shakespeare. He has used understatements about himself saying that “I am pigeon-livered” or “lack gall.” Although they are not negative statements, they show the use of understatement by Hamlet who often does not do so for any significant reason but only wants to show his affirmation to take action against the usurper.
Example # 2
From “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” by T. S. Eliot
But though I have wept and fasted, wept and prayed,
Though I have seen my head (grown slightly bald) brought in upon a platter,
I am no prophet—and here’s no great matter.
The last verses of this great poem by T. S. Eliot show the use of double negative in poetry. It shows that he is not a prophet that he should predict such matters, and the matter is not of huge importance. Both negatives show the positive meanings that Prufrock implies here. In fact, he wants to say that it does not matter to him as the issues under discussion are trivial.
Example # 3
From A Streetcar Named Desire by Lorraine Hansberry
First thing a man ought to learn in life is not to make love to no colored woman rest thing in the morning. You all some eeeevil people at eight o’clock in the morning.
This is the conversation of Walter Lee Younger when he talks to Ruth, his wife in the popular play by Lorraine Hansberry, A Streetcar Named Desire. He tells his wife that he is fed up with her and that nobody should marry an African American girl, which is an understatement. It also shows the use of double negative, which is common in the language spoken by the African Americans though sometimes the statement may not be a litotes.
Example # 4
From Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neal Hurston
What she doin’ coming back here in dem overhalls? Can’t she find no dress to put on?—Where’s dat blue satin dress she left here in?—Where alldat money her husband took and died and left her?—What dat ole forty yearole ’oman doin’ wid her hair swingin’ down her back lak some young gal?
Despite being a fine example of African American colloquialism, this short passage from Their Eyes Were Watching God by Hurston shows the double use of negatives which is also an understatement. It is because it shows that it is a quizzical expression. Therefore, this is an excellent litotes.
Example # 5
From Beloved by Toni Morrison
Then something. The plash of water, the sight of her shoes and stockings awry on the path where she had flung them; or Here Boy lapping in the puddle near her feet, and suddenly there was Sweet Home rolling, rolling, rolling out before her eyes, and although there was not a leaf on that farm that did not make her want to scream, it rolled itself out before her in shameless beauty. It never looked as terrible as it was and it made her wonder if hell was a pretty place too. Fire and brimstone all right, but hidden in lacy groves. Boys hanging from the most beautiful sycamores in the world. It shamed her–remembering the wonderful soughing trees rather than the boys. Try as she might to make it otherwise, the sycamores beat out the children every time and she could not forgive her memory for that.
This passage shows excellent use of understatements or litotes intended to make the barbarism against African Americans less barbaric and more maltreatment. Although it does not seem intentional, it is rather tragic as different litotes have not used the double negative, but they present the opposite meanings and not affirmative ones.
How to Create Litotes
- Plan authoring a story, a novel, or a short narrative. Also, think about your characters and their humble beginning.
- Place the character in a situation where they have to express humility.
- Try to use a double negative to elicit an affirmative answer that should be an understatement.
- Try out its effectiveness in the context and text.
- Also, try to use the context of Oedipus as he says, “I am not sleeping, you are not waking me.” It has double negative, humility as well as pride.
Benefits of Using Litotes
- It shows the real nature of the character as well as the author who wants to show the character in a certain light.
- It helps readers understand the real objective of the authors/writers.
- It also helps the authors and writers present down-to-earth real characters in their writings.
Literary Device of Litotes in Literary Theory
- Litotes is an integral part of figurative writing. Therefore, it is also essential in formalism or a formalistic analysis of a literary piece.
- It helps in postcolonialism as well as postmodernism to interpret the author and his real objectives of writing a piece of literature.
- It also helps us understand the perspective of readers’ response theory.
- It is important in rhetoric as it shows the assertation of the character or the speaker or the author. In this assertion lies their real objective of showing or establishing ethos to make oratory, speech, or writing convincing. Therefore, it is an important part of rhetoric.
Bennett, Andrew, and Nicholas Royle. Literature, Criticism and Theory. Harlow, UK: Pearson, 2004. Print.
Barry, Peter. Beginning Theory: An Introduction to Literary and Cultural Theory. Machester, 2009. Print.
Harris, A. Leslie. “Litotes and Superlative in Beowulf.” English Studies 69.1 (1988): 1-11. Neuhaus, Laura. “On The Relation of Irony, Understatement, and Litotes.” Pragmatics & Cognition 23.1 (2016): 117-149.
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