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I was wondering what the term was for a intentional understatement of an obvious excess to emphasize that excess.

For example saying Bill Gates is “doing well for himself”. Anyone familiar with Bill Gates instantly thinks of how “doing well for himself” doesn’t do his excess wealth justice.

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2 Answers 2

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Meiosis

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

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There's litotes - a figure of speech consisting of an understatement in which an affirmative is expressed by negating its opposite. But that would be exemplified by "Bill Gates isn't doing too bad".

OP's "doing well for himself" is just plain understatement. If OP really wants a literary term, there's meiosis, but it's a very rare literary term these days (I have a degree in literature, but until I read Robusto's answer here I only knew this word in its biological cell division sense).

For anyone who wants to dig deeper, OED says it's from Gr. µείωσις lessening, f. µειοῦν, to lessen, f. µείων less. It's used in the "cell division" sense because the two "daughter" cells each have half as many chromosomes as the "parent".

Personally I'd avoid meiosis for rhetorical understatement. It's English, Jim, but not as we know it.

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  • That's weird and interesting. From @Robusto's answer: "meiosis (which RegDwight will be amused to know is another term for litotes)". Does this compute? Commented Oct 4, 2012 at 3:55
  • @coleopterist: I've no idea why Robusto said RegDwight would be amused, if that's what you mean. Maybe ask in chat. Commented Oct 4, 2012 at 13:00
  • No, I was remarking on his statement that meiosis is synonymous with litotes. Now, I see that the second freedict definition states this quite explicitly. Apologies for the noise :| Commented Oct 4, 2012 at 13:18
  • @coleopterist: It's not entirely "noise". Obviously I'm no expert on meiosis usage (I was mainly concerned to warn against bandying it about inappropriately), but it does seem the definitions of litotes/meiosis can overlap. According to online dictionaries (but not OED or my own experience), litotes can apply where there's no negation, and all sources seem to imply that it's a "subset" of meiosis, thus making the two synonymous in some contexts/usages. I just thought that was too much detail to go into in the answer itself, for a word that I'm advising against using anyway. Commented Oct 4, 2012 at 13:32
  • Thanks Fumble. I think the examples provided here clarify the distinction between the two. Commented Oct 4, 2012 at 15:09

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