li·​to·​tes | \ ˈlī-tə-ˌtēz How to pronounce litotes (audio) , ˈli-, lī-ˈtō-ˌtēz How to pronounce litotes (audio) \
plural litotes

Definition of litotes

: understatement in which an affirmative is expressed by the negative of the contrary (as in "not a bad singer" or "not unhappy")

Litotes Probably Pop Up in Your Everyday Speech

Even if you've never heard the word litotes, chances are you've encountered this figure of speech. If you've ever approved of a job well done by exclaiming "Not bad!" or told someone that you are "not unhappy" when you are ecstatic, you've even used it yourself. In fact, you might say that it would be "no mean feat" to avoid this common feature of our language! And litotes isn't only common; it's also simple—etymologically speaking, that is. Litotes evolved from a Greek word meaning "simple," and perhaps ultimately from another Greek word meaning "linen cloth."

First Known Use of litotes

1589, in the meaning defined above

History and Etymology for litotes

Greek litotēs, from litos simple, perhaps from lit-, lis linen cloth

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The first known use of litotes was in 1589

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Cite this Entry

“Litotes.” The Dictionary, Merriam-Webster Inc., Accessed 19 January 2020.

More from Merriam-Webster on litotes

Rhyming Dictionary: Words that rhyme with litotes Encyclopedia article about litotes

Comments on litotes

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to insert between existing elements

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