Understatement: Literary Definition & Examples

Among many literary devices ‘Hyperbole’ and ‘Understatement’ have a great importance. ‘Understatement’ is quite the opposite of hyperbole. In an hyperbolic statement the words are used to produce an effect of hugeness.

But when ‘understatement’ is used, it expresses the contrary effect.

The term ‘understatement’ has originated from the Greek term “meiosis”. “Meiosis” means ‘lessening’.

‘Understatement’ is used to deliberately show something less in its importance. The magnitude of the fact or the event is given a trivial importance.

The effect of ‘understatement’ is ironical. This irony can be brutal and sometimes savagely ironic.

With some examples, this literary term can be explained better.

In Jonathon Swifts “A tale of a tub” there is a line – ” Last week I saw a woman flayed , and you will hardly believe how much it altered her person for the worse”. This line show a savagely ironic side of this literary term.

For comical and ironic effect this literary term is also used. Mark Twain commented – ” The reports of my death are greatly exaggerated”.

Some critics have some other opinions regarding the uses and effects of this literary term. They say that this literary device can deepen the tragic effects or any kind of grave sorrows. This simple and unemphatic statements really enhance the effects of tragic events.

For example – Wordsworth’s ‘Micheal’ which was written in 1800 has a line, “And lifted up a single stone”. This line helps to deepen the sorrow.

There is a branch or a part of this literary device. “Understatement” has a special form and it’s called ‘Litotes’.  ‘Litotes’ means plain or simple.

Definition of ‘Litotes’ – It’s a statement that produce an affirmative effect by negating its contrary. For example if it’s said that – “He is not the strongest man”, it means , he is a weak person.

Even in the Anglo-Saxon poetry the examples of such lines can be found. For grim irony this device was used.

In “Beowulf” Hrothgar reaches the monster Grendell’s place and says that “That is not a pleasant place”. It’s obvious that the place is filthy. Thus the understatement in irony can be found frequently in many forms .

For some dramatic effect and for some comical effect ‘understatement’ has been used. There are some places in literature where a reader must engage himself/herself to understand the depth of the situation. If the words are expressed in straight manner, the effect may not be striking. But when ‘understatement’ is used the reader uses his/her thinkings to feel the situation. This produce a great ironical effect in the readers mind.