“By the time his arrival was reported, Lindbergh was the world’s hero, and nobody was interested in an Italian who reached his destination at the end of a tow rope.”

Like this example, the Italian guy has a name and did much more than just what was stated. What is this type of tone called? (generalizing the facts + understating the situation) Is there a name for this type of writing? Throughout the book (One Summer: America 1927) this strategy of intensified understatement is used multiple times, but I can't find the word for this kind of tone. It purposefully downplays the exciting scenario while intentionally stripping detail to amplify the contrast, which ends up not being 100% accurate, but funny nonetheless.

Thank you for your help in advance.

  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat.
    – tchrist
    Aug 21 '20 at 1:18
  • 2
    @tchrist what conversation? I don't see any comments in chat??
    – Mari-Lou A
    Aug 21 '20 at 17:00
  • 2
    I am confused, too. Not sure what I missed or why these answers are being downvoted.
    – livresque
    Aug 21 '20 at 17:06
  • It is still either unclear or too general what you're looking for beyond 'understatement'. Why don't 'understatement' and its synonyms (litotes, meiosis) not already fit well enough? Also, for whatever reason, in the passage I don't understand who the Italian is, and therefore don't get the insinuation and therefore also not the trope being used.
    – Mitch
    Aug 21 '20 at 18:27
  • sorry for the lack of context. I know it is understatement, but it is repeated numerous times throughout the book, so I was looking for what you would call that specific TONE. Aug 23 '20 at 6:05

It seems that the two answers above have been voted down as they contain two options.

There is really only one choice:


Classical rhetoricians classified figures of speech into four categories or quadripartita ratio:[2]

  • addition (adiectio), also called repetition/expansion/superabundance

  • omission (detractio), also called subtraction/abridgement/lack

  • transposition (transmutatio), also called transferring

  • permutation (immutatio), also called switching/interchange/substitution/transmutation

We can say that "an Italian [...] tow rope" is detractio as it diminishes the status of the achievement

Further down we have:

meiosis: Use of understatement, usually to diminish the importance of something.

And this is a perfect fit for the example.

There is also an element of satire (q.v.) about it as the whole sentence is an oblique comment on the fickleness of society.

Satirical meiosis would therefore be the term.

  • 1
    The M-W definition of meiosis, which is the one I've always seen as the default, is 'the presentation of a thing with underemphasis especially in order to achieve a greater effect'. And bolding 'satirical meiosis' and labelling it 'the term' makes it look like a fixed expression. // I don't agree with your analysis of the reasons for the other downvotes (though the downvotes seem harsh even by my standards). There are 146 hits in an in-house search for 'litotes' on ELU; people perhaps feel that this has been covered ... Aug 26 '20 at 10:28
  • once (...) too often, and that OP should have done a bit of research. However, I think your answer includes very valuable material. Aug 26 '20 at 10:31

Litotes is a rhetorical device that uses understatement to draw attention to the positive by using the negative. It's a form of irony. Often you'll hear it in introductions, i.e. "I don't have to tell you how the great generosity of our talented guest has helped influence the community...."

[Beowulf] raised the hard weapon by the hilt, angry and resolute – the sword wasn’t useless to the warrior… (Beowulf, line 1575)

Meiosis is a more specific figure of speech or rhetoric than litotes.

In The Catcher in the Rye by J. D. Salinger, Holden Caulfield says "It isn't very serious. I have this tiny little tumor on the brain."


I think meiosis may be more exact than litodes.

As Merriam Webster defines it:

the presentation of a thing with underemphasis especially in order to achieve a greater effect

Whereas, litodes has a more specific meaning:

the use of a negative statement in order to emphasize a positive meaning, for example "a not inconsiderable amount of money (= a considerable amount of money)"

However, just understatement itself can convey that meaning.

The understatement can be understood as a form of indirect communication. Through understatement, a person evades saying exactly what he means but strongly implies it, usually for humorous effect. For example, if someone says that the state of Alaska is "pretty big", he would be engaging in understatement regarding the obvious fact that Alaska is enormous and larger in itself than most European nations.


Understatement is the opposite of hyperbole and overstatement and helps develop irony and sarcasm in writing or speech. Its first known use was in 1824.

(from Ultius glossary of rhetorical devices)

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