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I came across the figure of speech litotes and it seems that it is the use of a negative to mean and emphasise the opposite. Now, take the following examples:

"I just tried the soup. It's not the worst soup I've tasted."

"We tried to get George Clooney on our show, but he's not the most jobless of actors."

In the first case, the negation doesn't seem to directly mean the opposite. The soup may just be 'not bad', meaning worth a taste, but not necessarily GOOD or AWESOME soup.

The second example seems more to be what litotes is about, at least by definition. Here the negation clearly means that George Clooney is a very busy man. Not that he's the 2nd or 3rd most jobless man, and hence fairly jobless.

Am I right in therefore concluding that litotes uses a negative to firmly underline the opposite, rather than merely mean the negative? In which case if someone asks me "How's the new book by XXX" and I answer "Not bad"

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closed as general reference by JSBձոգչ, KitFox, Jasper Loy, kiamlaluno, waiwai933 Aug 8 '11 at 6:09

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1 Answer

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Wikipedia states it very well:

Litotes is a form of understatement, always deliberate and with the intention of emphasis. However, the interpretation of negation may depend on context, including cultural context. In speech, it may also depend on intonation and emphasis; for example, the phrase "not bad" can be said in such a way as to mean anything from "mediocre" to "excellent."

Your question:

Am I right in therefore concluding that litotes uses a negative to firmly underline the opposite, rather than merely mean the negative

In rhetoric, litotes ( /ˈlaɪtɵtiːz/,[1] US /ˈlɪtətiːz/ or /laɪˈtoʊtiːz/) is a figure of speech in which understatement is employed for rhetorical effect when an idea is expressed by a denial of its opposite,

Yes, you are right, it's used for compliments, or just a statement without any complimentary effects, but not for negative effects.


References: Litotes

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