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Understatement

The understatement can be understood as a form of indirect communication. Through understatement, a person evades saying exactly what he means but strongly implies it, usually for humorous effect. For example, if someone says that the state of Alaska is "pretty big", he would be engaging in understatement regarding the obvious fact that Alaska is enormous and larger in itself than most European nations. 

Definition

An understatement is a transitive verb used by writers or speakers in order to intentionally make a situation seem less important or smaller than it is. Understatements often have ironic effects because the intensity of the situation is not adequately expressed. Many people in the media or in professions where violence is commonplace (doctors, nurses, emergency technicians, police, or military) use understatement to avoid panicking patients, patients’ families and friends, or the general populace. Understatement is the opposite of hyperbole and overstatement, and helps develop irony and sarcasm in writing or speech. Its first known use was in 1824.

Examples of understatement

Understatement can be used intentionally or unintentionally; in the latter case, the result is often humorous or sounds ignorant. Here are some examples to demonstrate the use of the literary device.

“Deserts are sometimes hot, dry, and sandy.”

Describing an obese person by saying, “He is not slender.”

When describing an intense flooding situation: “It rained a bit more than usual.”

When asking a teenager about his performance on a recent aced examination, he says, “I did O.K.”

Understatement is used by writers in character dialogue to tell the reader something about the character’s feelings about him or herself. For example, in J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye, Holden Caulfield describes his brain tumor in the following way: “I have to have this operation. It isn’t very serious. I have this tiny little tumor on the brain.”

Here are some more examples of understatement:

“Flight controllers here are looking very carefully at the situation. Obviously a major malfunction”

– NASA’s Mission Control spokesman in a statement just after the space shuttle Challenger exploded.

Usage

Understatement can be used to avoid telling a truth that might hurt or harm the people someone loves, as is exemplified by the following Lawrence Oates comment.

“I am just going outside and may be some time.” Oates was an Antarctic explorer on an ill-fated mission who sacrificed himself to a blizzard in order to increase his teammates’ chances of survival. Oates was thirty-one years old.

Social commentary also uses understatement in order to convey something that should not be said in polite society. For instance, 

“He would never win a Nobel Prize.”

“Fortunately for us, the head chef has stomach flu this evening.”

“She wasn’t the sharpest tool in the shed.”

“The material was not the softest she’d ever felt.”

“That bed wasn’t very comfortable.”

“Attila the Hun was not a nice man.”

“The atomic explosion was not good.”

“This prime rib is tasty.”

“I think that the holocaust was very sad.”

“Having children is a worthwhile experience.”

Litotes are literary devices related to understatement, using double negatives in order to convey understatement or an opposite idea. Litotes are often ironic, as well. As an example, consider the following:

“You won’t be sorry,” which actually means “You will be glad.”

A New York Times writer called Warren M. Anderson “A Master of the Politics of Understatement” in a 1988 news article, citing his “low-key” attitude as the source of his “somewhat wooden and meticulously polite” appearances in public.

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