Monday Metaphor: Litotes: Not bad, not bad at all.

Litotes is a kind of rhetorical device in which the speaker expresses an affirmative by using a negative to the contrary. It is generally understood as an understatement. The word is pronounced thus: LIH-tuh-teez. 

Litotes is in effect when an idea is expressed by a denial of its opposite, principally via double negatives.

Here is the way it is built.

You want to say, “The weather is fine.”

The contrary of that would be,  “The weather is bad.”

Using litotes, you say, “The weather is not bad.”

In a society where sarcasm is rife, it’s not unexpected that such a rhetorical device would be used across the spectrum of ages and types of literature as well as in everyday speech. I recently saw this on tv: at the end of a Burn Notice episode, two guy watch Fiona walk away. One says, ‘I don’t mind that.”

For example, rather than saying that something is attractive (or even very attractive), one might merely say it is “not unattractive.”

Someone too modest to say, “I’m happy,” might say, “I’m not unhappy.”

A giant of a literary figure might be described as “a poet of no small stature.”

Here is an example from history.

“I cannot say that I think you are very generous to the ladies; for, whilst you are proclaiming peace and good-will to men, emancipating all nations, you insist upon retaining an absolute power over wives.”
(Abigail Adams, letter to John Adams, May 7, 1776)

Here is a list of litotes along with the interpretations:

Litotes: As a means of saying:
“Not bad.” “Good.”
“That [sword] was not useless / to the warrior now.” (Beowulf) “The warrior has a use for the sword now.”
“He was not unfamiliar with the works of Dickens.” “He was acquainted with the works of Dickens.”
“She is not as young as she was.” “She’s old.”
“Not unlike…” “Like…”
“You are not wrong.” “You are correct.”

Here are some examples of litotes in literature, movies, and tv.

Homer is known to have used litotes.. In Book 24 of the Iliad, Zeus describes Achilles (line 186), as being “neither unthinking, nor unseeing”, meaning that he is both wise and prudent.

The Scarlet Pimpernel was nothing, if not non-chalant. He had a blasé way of congratulating himself: “’Not a bad day’s work on the whole,’ he muttered, as he quietly took off his mask, and his pale, fox-like eyes glittered in the red glow of the fire. ‘Not a bad day’s work..”

(Baroness Emmuska Orczy, The Scarlet Pimpernel, 1905)

One of the most famous litotes of French literature is to be found in Pierre Corneille‘s Le Cid (1636). The heroine, Chimène, says to her lover Rodrigue, who just killed her father: “Go, I hate you not,” meaning “I love you.”

“Because though no beauty by fashion-mag standards, the ample-bodied Ms. Klause, we agreed, was a not unclever, not unattractive young woman, not unpopular with her classmates both male and female.”
(John Barth, “The Bard Award,” in The Development: Nine Stories. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2008)

“Now we have a refuge to go to. A refuge that the Cylons know nothing about! It won’t be an easy journey.”
(Battlestar Galactica, 2003)

This is from Roseanne Dowell, a Muse author: “I write because I love it and can’t not write.”

A word of caution so that your litotes does not express the wrong sentiment. Sometimes a speaker has to be careful of his intonation. For example, the phrase “not bad” can be said in such a way as to mean anything from “mediocre” to “excellent.” It could show a reluctance to praise or even “damn with faint praise.”

Litotes is not a bad way to add variety to your stories. Share them with us if you already have some.

Now here are some announcements.

On Tuesday, July 19, I will be talking about Wounds with Kat Holmes on her blog talk radio show at 6:00 pm, Eastern time. The url for the show is

And the phone number for calling in is: 619-393-6798 and starts at 6 pm EST.


On Thursday, July 21, my guest on this blog will be Margot Finke. I will review her book, Taconi and Claude, from Guardian Angel Publishing.





4 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Nancy Stewart
    Jul 18, 2011 @ 07:54:08

    Terrific again! This is such a nice device both for speaking and for writing. I tend to use it a lot. Great stuff, as usual, Barbara.


  2. J. Aday Kennedy
    Jul 18, 2011 @ 13:34:08

    I’m blown away how you come up with such interesting tidbits.


  3. Pam Maynard
    Jul 18, 2011 @ 17:09:57

    Wicked good stuff here Barb!
    Happy Blogging!


  4. barbarabockman
    Jul 19, 2011 @ 00:58:37

    Hi Nancy, J. Aday, and Pam. Thanks for your comments. At first litotes seems obscure, but it comes very naturally to most people.


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