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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    You're probably thinking of litotes (A figure of speech consisting of an understatement in which an affirmative is expressed by negating its opposite). But in fact "doing well for himself" is just understatement, plain and simple. Litotes would be exemplified by something like "Bill Gates isn't doing too bad". But you could perhaps say yours is meiosis - just a literary term for rhetorical understatement. – FumbleFingers Oct 4 '12 at 2:16
  • @FumbleFingers Your comment is perfect. "Meiosis" is correct. If you convert it to an answer, I shall upvote it. Note that OED gives two literary definitions for meiosis - the first is the one that applies here; the second is as a synonym for "litotes" (which as you've pointed out, is NOT what this is an example of). – user16269 Oct 4 '12 at 2:27
  • @FumbleFingers My example was poor and yours actually represents what I was thinking much more accurately. Thank you for the answer. – ClassicThunder Oct 4 '12 at 3:01
  • @David Wallace: The truth is I assumed OP did in fact want litotes, and I thought that had already been asked about. But if meiosis really is what he's after, I think it's best I expand that comment into an answer. The fact of the matter is that in recent decades meiosis is almost exclusively used in the biological sense, so you'd be ill-advised to trot it out as evidence of your literary credentials. – FumbleFingers Oct 4 '12 at 3:25
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    @David Wallace "... meiosis is almost exclusively used in the biological sense,": Exactly, which is what prevented me from offering that answer. – Kris Oct 4 '12 at 13:13


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? – coleopterist Oct 4 '12 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. – FumbleFingers Oct 4 '12 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 :| – coleopterist Oct 4 '12 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. – FumbleFingers Oct 4 '12 at 13:32
  • Thanks Fumble. I think the examples provided here clarify the distinction between the two. – coleopterist Oct 4 '12 at 15:09

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