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An understatement is a figure of speech that has the effect (and sometimes, the purpose) of making something appear to be less important than it actually is. It is a core feature of British humour and comedy. In rhetoric, it is known as litotes. The opposite of understatement is embellishment.

What is an understatement?[edit]

An understatement is a figure of speech; the term 'figure' indicates that its form is more important than its content when it comes to communicating its meaning. Understatement is better interpreted as a holistic entity, which gains its meaning from its structural relations to other linguistic entities. This "holism" manifests itself, primarily, in the way in which the phonological (e.g., tone, amplitude), grammatical, semantical, and pragmatic features are combined. For instance, an understatement may be used in combination with other linguistic entities, to develop irony and sarcasm. For example, in situations where an intense response (either positive or negative) is expected, understatement offers contrast which can reduce the intensity of the situation; downplaying its seriousness and inducing humour.[1]


Understatement can be used in the psychological form of deception called "minimisation": involving the combination of denial and rationalisation in circumstances where complete denial would be implausible.


  • This guy is in the White House
  • Ladies and gentlemen, this is your captain speaking. We have a small problem. All four engines have stopped. We are doing our damnedest to get them going again. I trust you are not in too much distress.- Announcement on British Airways Flight 9Wikipedia, 1982
  • Our Peculiar Institution- Employed in the American South
  • You must take a longer view. The present hunger is temporary. In writing books you must have a longer view. It would be difficult to describe it as hunger.- Maxim Litvinov, Soviet Foreign Minister[2]
  • Conversely, once tile is penetrated SOFI [Spray-On Foam Insulation] can cause significant damage.- NASA engineers to the officials, on potential sources of problems in Space Shuttle Columbia.[3]

See also[edit]