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Just out of curiousity, how did this double negative come to be?

When I use it, it's often because I want to emphasise the fact that x is not y but is still similar in some way, whereas "like" doesn't necessarily stress the fact that two things aren't the same when stating their... likeness.

The ship's design was not unlike that of a Firefly class vessel, but it was a lot faster, like the Millenium Falcon.

Captain Reynolds was like Han Solo in a way. A great leader in times of need.

Yes, I'm a Firefly fan.

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Sometimes not unlike is used as weasel words. (I want very much to say A is like B, but you know it isn’t; so I say it is not unlike B instead, to avoid a direct contradiction and to invite you to compare them anyway.) Sometimes it is used for no apparent reason; then it just sounds pretentious. Sometimes it’s fine. –  Jason Orendorff Apr 14 '11 at 7:07
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"Not unlike" is an example of the rhetorical device litotes; they have been a popular subject of discussion and many a question at this StackExchange. Have you read these: "Does not uncommon mean common?" and "Are not uncommon and similar phrases double negatives?..." –  Uticensis Apr 14 '11 at 7:08
    
@Billare: For the thing you highlighted, such expressions should be used only when the writing style requires it, excluding informal or normal conversations. –  Alenanno Apr 14 '11 at 9:35

2 Answers 2

"Not unlike" is slightly different than saying "like" much like saying "I love apples" is not the same thing as saying "I don't hate apples." It emphasizes a different degree of likeness. "Not unlike" just means that there exist similarities while "like" means they are similar.

Two objects can have similarities but not be similar, such as an apple and an orange are both fruits, so I could say "An apple is not unlike an orange in that they are both fruits." However to call an apple similar to an orange is perhaps a bit much.

Also consider that the meaning of "like" has many meanings, and is therefore a little ambiguous. So I notice a tendency to prefer "not unlike" in books in order to make the meaning clear that you mean to say that two things have similarities.

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+1, though I'm not keen on your apple/orange example. –  Charles May 9 '11 at 19:47

how did this double negative come to be?

About 100,000 years ago, during a conversation about antelope, Ug grunted twice to Og, and lo, litotes was invented.

Which is to say that it will have arisen naturally as part of the development of spoken human language at a time before writing had been invented, so no one will really know exactly how it came to be. It just obviously fills a subtle linguistic need to communicate the degree to which a verb applies to a noun.

Disclaimer: my knowledge of these things is not entirely unlike Ug's.

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