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In conversations people often use "not bad". How to interpret this?

Are they feeling good or just not bad or somewhere in the middle?
Does it depend on the context?

E.g.:

X: How are you doing today?
Y: Not bad. You?

Does "not bad" mean "good"?

E.g.:

X: How was the food in that new restaurant?
Y: Not bad.

Are there examples showing "not bad" doesn't mean "good" either?

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2  
"Not bad" means "not bad". It can be made to mean "good", but then again so can anything — including plain "bad" itself. Read up on litotes. I am certain your native language has a similar or even completely identical construction, not really leaving much of your question here. See also: Does “not uncommon” mean “common”? and the questions linked from there. –  RegDwigнt Feb 18 '13 at 17:07
    
I think this is Not Constructive, in that not bad can mean anything from average/neutral to extremely good, depending on context. –  FumbleFingers Feb 18 '13 at 22:30
    
There's a wonderful skit that hinges on the ambiguities of the expression not bad in an episode of 'Yes Minister" (or its sequel). Essentially, it is used to mean 'pretty good / well' or 'mediocre'. –  Edwin Ashworth Feb 18 '13 at 23:17

1 Answer 1

up vote 6 down vote accepted

It's common in English to use these types of statements where a direct answer would seem too assertive. For example, if you'd asked me how I had been lately, I'd likely say "not bad", rather than "good", as being good implies being better than normal, whereas not bad is just not bad.

People often say that things are not the opposite of what they are. They do this to avoid seeming forward and assertive when stating that something is the case.

Other examples include

  • Not the best (bad)
  • Not the brightest (stupid)
  • Not exactly perfect (flawed)
  • Not without its problems (problematic)
  • Not exactly rocket science (trivial)

English speakers often avoid making assertive statements unless they fully intend to be assertive. For example, they will often begin a statement of fact with "I believe...", "It seems...", "Apparently...".

I guess this gives assertions more impact too. To say "He is stupid" is far more offensive than saying "He is not the brightest chap I've ever met."

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1  
Yes; this 'amelioration' is known as hedging (see the article at en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hedge_(linguistics) - it's not bad). The 'not un-X' form mentioned here is known as litotes. –  Edwin Ashworth Feb 19 '13 at 23:54

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