As I had to explain this to a friend recently I thought I’d try to make a coherent post about it, as – no doubt to the detriment of my friend’s education – I was trying to explain the concept to him while half-cut and drowned out by a pub jukebox; not, I am sure most will agree, the ideal circumstances for education (especially from someone whose own education has been … underwhelming).
While preserving the privacy of our conversation, at this point we were haggling over acceptable use of hyperbole in everyday conversation, something which I delight in and which my friend reviles (fortunately the one thing we do both love is a good argument, and this one kept us going for a while); I asked if he had similar reservations about the use of litotes in everyday speech and on meeting with a blank face utterly failed to get the concept across. Drunk!Delilah scores nil points on literary education.
Litotes is usually credited originally to the sagas of the great frozen north (particularly in Icelandic and Old English), although as with anything to do with language and thought I suspect that it’s the kind of literary device that came about concurrently in a number of different linguistic civilisations and it’s only credited to the sagas because the people doing the crediting are European.
In the sagas, a phrase such as “not few were the men slain by his [insert adjective here] blade” would be used, under the assumption that cultural context would fill in the stoicism with accuracy; effectively, “not few were the men slain” translated to “he slaughtered his way through an entire army but frankly you wouldn’t believe how many people he killed so we’re going to go with the bald fact”.
Expressing an idea – usually one of extraordinary qualities, one which to describe “honestly” would require the use of terms that sound hyperbolic – through the denial of its opposite is not especially sophisticated in terms of rhetoric, and is in fact possibly a step below sarcasm or irony in terms of duplicity, but it and variants on the classic “not [adjective] = extremely [antonymic adjective]” structure are … well … not unpopular specifically with users of British English.
To be litotes, the rhetorical or literary device has to state and deny the opposite [strictly speaking the antonym] of the intended meaning in order to inflate or heighten the intended meaning by negation; this is most usually done through the use of antonymic adjective denial, for example, “her pustules were not pretty”, meaning “her pustules were repulsive”. The effect cannot be achieved with either an adjective that has no strongly-associated opposite, for example, “his foot was not purple” offers no immediate answer as to what colour his foot might actually be, whereas “his foot wasn’t exactly tiny” automatically creates the understanding (in the mind of a reader culturally attuned to use of litotes) that he has one massive hoof on him.
Even more so than the use of adjectives without direct antonym, litotes does not involve the negation of verbs or nouns; while the negation of a verb or noun can be used to make a rhetorical point (example: “What are you doing?” / “Not running?” in the case of someone walking very slowly), these fall under the aegis of irony or sarcasm.
To make it a little clearer:
Hyperbole: I ran so fast that I broke the sound barrier.
Simile: I ran like the wind.
Metaphor: I was lightning-quick on my feet.
Litotes: I wasn’t exactly dawdling.
Understatement: I was going quite fast.
Hyperbole takes the factual rendering and exaggerates it to ludicrous extent, sometimes for comic effect and sometimes (in an impressive and paradoxical display of implied irony) to diminish the known factual events themselves by comparison to the hyperbole. For example, after a mediocre weekend known by all to be a disappointment or, at best, averagely entertaining, one might state, “I’VE HAD THE TIME OF MY LIFE. THIS WEEKEND WAS THE NUTS”, clearly implying that the weekend in question was actually quite rubbish by comparison with the statement itself. This is ironic hyperbole.
Litotes takes the factual rendering and negates the opposition, in a manner similar to “drawing the negative space” in art. By taking a binary set of adjectives (or “graded opposites) and drawing attention to, then denying the antonym of the desired adjective, the binary is brought to mind by association. One might almost think of it as depressing one side of a see-saw in order to make the other rise.
This is, I feel, mildly more coherent than my belligerent shouting about Beowulf in the pub, and if nothing else it contains the words “antonymic adjective” to make me look like I have ever learnt anything in my life, and also a picture of a see-saw.