Understanding Understatement: Anglopolis

La proverbial flema británica se manifiesta en el lenguaje mediante una tendencia a atenuar la carga emotiva. Es por ello que es necesario no interpretar literalmente todo lo que dicen los británicos. Estos episodios históricos pueden servir como referencia.

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“Not bad!” My father often used to say “Not bad” after finishing his Sunday lunch. What he really meant was, “That food was absolutely delicious”. He would sometimes say, “Not bad” about a film. That meant, “This film has affected me more than I can say.” When I told him I’d passed my exams and had a place at university there was of course only one possible response. “Oh, not bad!”


My father’s “Not bad”, meaning “that’s absolutely great”, is an example of British understatement. Traditionally in Britain it’s been seen as good manners not to be too dramatic or too direct. That’s why we can be so confusingly indirect in questions or suggestions, adding words like: “perhaps”, “it could be”, “I wonder if”, and “maybe”. Instead of asking the perfectly reasonable direct question: “Would you open the window?” a British person, with their instinct for the indirect and understated, might say: “I wonder if you could perhaps open the window?” Ufff, confusing!

keep calm and carry on

And British understatement seems to get stronger in times of danger. The more extreme the danger, the more understated the response. It’s that stereotypically British ‘stiff upper lip’ that tries to “keep calm and carry on” however dramatic the situation. Here are a few classic examples.


In 1912, Captain Scott and four other Antarctic explorers were returning from the South Pole. The conditions were horrendous, and they knew they’d be lucky to survive. One of the men, Captain Lawrence Oates, was suffering badly with frostbite. Worried that he would slow down his companions, Oates decided to leave the shelter of the tent and go out to die alone on the ice. Captain Scott recorded Oates’ tragically understated final words in his diary. “I am just going outside and may be some time”. 


Captain Eric Moody, a British Airways pilot, gives us another magnificent example of understatement in extremis. In 1982 he was flying a plane with 247 passengers on board from London to Australia. Near Jakarta it flew into a cloud of volcanic ash. First one, then another, and finally all four of the plane’s engines failed. Smoke filled the cabin and Captain Moody tried unsuccessfully to restart the engines while preparing to crash-land into the sea. In an apparently desperate situation he made this announcement to passengers. “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.” Miraculously the engines did eventually restart and Moody landed the plane safely. British calm overcame catastrophe.


But despite the stereotype, it would be unfair to claim understatement as an exclusively British characteristic. It was of course James A. Lovell, the American astronaut on the damaged Apollo 13 spacecraft, who came up with the best-known understatement of all time. “Houston, we’ve had a problem.”


Litotes – pronounced lai-to-tees – is a specific type of understatement constructed using a negative. Here are some examples using the negative plus a superlative

“I’m not the best at maths.” = ”I’m bad at maths but I don’t want to specify just how bad.” 

If I was in a job interview and the interviewer asked me about my maths skills I’d have various options. 1) Lie and say, “I’m great at maths.” 2) Be honest and say, “I’m absolutely rubbish at maths,” or 3) Use litotes and say, (perfectly honestly, but with a little understatement) “I’m not the best at maths.”

One can imagine Captain Oates telling his companions “This cold is not the best thing for my health.”

And here’s the ultimate litotic response to a stupid suggestion: “That’s not the most helpful suggestion right now.” It might sound calm and polite but what it really means is: “Shut up, you idiot!”

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