• litotes •
li-tê-teez or lai-to-teez • Hear it!
Part of Speech: Noun
Meaning: A double negative that emphasizes the positive, as 'an investment that is not without risk', meaning "it has some risk".
Notes: Today's Good Word does not change in the plural: many litotes. An expression that uses litotes is litotic and, yes, you may speak litotically. Litotes is the opposite of hyperbole, rhetorical exaggeration. It is one side of an interesting characteristic of language: the negation of an opposite is more positive than the negation of the positive itself. For example, in the series, (1) good, (2) not bad, (3) not good, (4) bad, notice that not good, implies WORSE than "not bad". In fact, not bad means rather good and not good means rather bad!
In Play: Litotes is often used to soften the blow of an uncomfortable truth, as when your friend says that your blind date is "not unattractive". So, he is not attractive but that is better than "not attractive". Litotes can also reflect an ironic emphasis in reverse: "While I wasn't looking forward to the reception, the food made it not at all unpleasant."
Word History: Today's Good Word was taken pretty much 'as is' from Greek litotes "simplicity", the noun from litos "smooth, plain, simple". The Greek root is based on PIE *(s)lei- "flat, slippery", which is also behind Latin limos "slime". That is also probably it there in linere "to anoint", the root of English liniment. The Germanic languages retained the initial Fickle S, so we get English slime, slick, slide, and slip. However, we find that [s] in other languages, too: Old Irish sleman "smooth", Czech slimák "snail, slug", and Latvian slieka "earthworm". (Today we would like to thank Good Word subscriber Lew Jury for suggesting a term that is not at all uninteresting.)
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