Basically, when someone says something along the lines of

"I know he's not the smartest person in the world, but he should at least pass first grade math."

It's peculiar because they are using a form of hyperbole to say they are not the smartest person in the world, but what they are really implying is that they are not smart at all.

Edit This post was flagged a possible duplicate, I just wanted to clarify that what I am asking is not the nuance or meaning of the phrase, but the term for the idiom itself. I do not believe this specific question has been asked. Thanks.

  • In that case maybe you would prefer "He's not the sharpest knife in the drawer". Less of a hyperbole very similar meaning. – DRF Jul 1 '15 at 12:54
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    There are various idioms similar to the one DRF suggested. "He's not the brightest bulb" and "He's not the brightest crayon in the box" are pretty common. There's also the "He's a few _____ short of a _____" construction: for example, "He's a few cards short of a full deck." – Nicole Jul 1 '15 at 13:07
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    If you're into Lit Crit terminology, it's litotes. If you're an ordinary native speaker, it's understatement. I'm both, so my choice of term would depend on who I'm talking to. – FumbleFingers Jul 1 '15 at 13:44
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    It's a Negative Polarity Item; specifically, a member of the open "minimal degree" class (e.g, He didn't drink a drop/say a word/know a thing, not the sharpest pencil in the box, not the simplest idea to understand, etc.) – John Lawler Jul 1 '15 at 14:11
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    @Nicole, that's reminded me of my favourite: "He's three coupons short of a toaster." – David Garner Jul 2 '15 at 18:09

It's called litotes.

From Wikipedia:

In rhetoric, litotes is a figure of speech wherein understatement is used to emphasize a point by stating a negative to further affirm a positive, often incorporating double negatives for effect

For example, "She's not bad looking" could be used to express that someone is gorgeous. Or it could convey that she's not particularly ugly, but also isn't particularly attractive.

The degree of emphasis depends on the context in which it is used.

From Oxford:

litotes: [MASS NOUN] Ironical understatement in which an affirmative is expressed by the negative of its contrary (e.g. I shan’t be sorry for I shall be glad).

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    I'd rate "She's not bad looking" below "She's good looking", and certainly not as high as "She's gorgeous". – Sankarane Jul 1 '15 at 13:24
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    @Sankarane - unless it's also a form of sarcasm where you might say about someone who is stunning, "Eh! She's not bad looking!" – Kristina Lopez Jul 1 '15 at 13:37
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    @Sankarane: From Wikiedia: The degree of emphasis depends on the context in which it is used. So, it's aplicable in both the cases. – Tushar Raj Jul 1 '15 at 13:39
  • @Tushar Raj: That's right, when there's sarcasm, as Kristina points out. – Sankarane Jul 1 '15 at 14:21
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    Wow, awesome answer. Never heard of this one before. – Rob Grant Jul 2 '15 at 10:22

I would call it a "euphemism", a figure of speech where you substitute a milder word or phrase for one considered to be too harsh or offensive. ("you know, he isn't the smartest person in the world" instead of "he is dumb".

  • A euphemism is a generally innocuous word or expression used in place of one that may be found offensive or suggest something unpleasant. Some euphemisms are intended to amuse; while others use bland, inoffensive terms for things the user wishes to downplay. Euphemisms are used to refer to taboo topics (such as disability, sex, excretion, and death) in a polite way, or to mask profanity.

  • euphemism - "a mild or pleasant word or phrase that is used instead of one that is unpleasant or offensive" MW

examples of euphemisms:

  • to pass away instead to die
  • ethnic cleansing instead of genocide
  • pregnancy termination instead of abortion
  • adult entertainment instead of pornography
  • go all the way instead of have sex
  • enhanced interrogation methods instead of torture
  • undocumented workers (when they are working for you) instead of illegal aliens (when they are not)
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    I'd hardly call it "euphemistic" to tell someone they're not the sharpest tool in the box, or similar. Biting sarcasm, more like. – FumbleFingers Jul 1 '15 at 13:46
  • @FumbleFingers IMHO, to say that someone "isn't the smartest person in the world", is a euphemism. Not a set phrase like the examples I cited, I agree. – Centaurus Jul 1 '15 at 14:31
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    Actually, it's only when your ping made me come back to this one that I've realized many/most (all?) euphemistic usages are effectively a type of understatement. So although I stand by my first comment, I'm cancelling my downvote. – FumbleFingers Jul 1 '15 at 14:42

You might call that a backhanded compliment:

A backhanded compliment, also known as a left-handed compliment or asteism, is an insult that is disguised as a compliment. Sometimes, a backhanded compliment may be inadvertent. However, the term usually connotes an intent to belittle or condescend.

  • I thought it was a "left-handed compliment"... – Oldbag Jul 1 '15 at 23:32
  • @Oldbag Directly from the quoted definition: "A backhanded compliment, also known as a left-handed compliment or asteism..." – Kevin Workman Jul 2 '15 at 11:35
  • Thanks. I dunno, "backhanded" conjures violent images for me. Rather than, say, a tennis stroke, I see Al Pacino (as various characters) whappin' somebody across the face. "Left-handed" simply sounds a bit sneaky. (IMHO) – Oldbag Jul 3 '15 at 11:53
  • @Oldbag I don't know what to tell you- the definition of backhanded compliment is the same as the definition of left-handed compliment. You say potato; I say tomato. – Kevin Workman Jul 3 '15 at 16:35

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