An understatement is a figure of speech employed by writers or speakers to intentionally make a situation seem less important than it really is.
For example, you win 10 million dollars in a lottery. When you tell a news reporter “I am delighted”, you are making an understatement. Similarly, suppose a team loses to its opponent 50 to 0 in a soccer match and the captain of the team says in a post-match ceremony says, “We did not do well”, it is an understatement because he is trying to decrease the intensity of the loss.
An understatement usually has an ironic effect as an equally intense response is expected in severe situations but the statement in response is the opposite of what was expected i.e. less intense but of course with an ironical tone. For instance, your friend returns your new coat with blots all over it; in response, you make an understatement, “It doesn’t look too bad”. Therefore, an understatement is opposite to another figure of speech hyperbole or an overstatement.
Common Understatement Examples
Let us try to understand understatement better with the help of some common examples of understatement used in daily conversations:
- “Deserts are sometimes hot, dry and sandy” while describing deserts of the world.
- “He is not too thin” while describing an obese person.
- “It rained a bit more than usual” while describing an area being flooded after heavy rainfall.
- “It was O.K.” is an understatement if someone who got the highest score in a test said this when asked about his result.
- “It is a bit cold today,” when the temperature is 5 degrees below freezing.
Examples of Understatement in Literature
In Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye, Holden Caulfield says:
“I have to have this operation. It isn’t very serious. I have this tiny little tumor on the brain.”
Having a tumor in the brain is a serious issue, which has been understated in the above statement.
In Emperor Mage, a fantasy novel by Tamora Pierce, Diana states (as if she has done nothing wrong):
“I lost my temper.”
This is an understatement that Diana makes, after raising an army of dinosaur skeletons to destroy the king and later, she destroys the imperial palace in order to avenge the death of her teacher.
In Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Fin,
[Aunt Sally] “Good gracious, anybody hurt?”
[Huck] “No’m. Killed a nigger.”
It is one of the understatement examples found in Twain’s literary pieces. Huck’s response, “No’m. Killed a nigger.” exposes the thinking of the people back then, who did not consider black men humans. Killing a black man was not considered something serious.
Look at the understatement in Night’s Dawn Trilogy written by Peter F. Hamilton;
“I’ve always been a massive admirer of the Edenist ability to understate. But I think defining a chunk of land fifteen kilometers across that suddenly takes flight and wanders off into another dimension as a little problem is possibly the best example yet.”
Another example of understatement comes from Primula Bond’s novel The Silver Chain:
“And you, who have told me a hundred times how deeply you pitied me for the sorceries by which I was bound, will doubtless hear with joy that they are now ended forever. There was, it seems, some small error in your Ladyship’s way of treating them.”
The reference of “some small error” is an understatement as the error which ends somebody’s power is not small at all.
In another fantasy novel Consider Phlebas, an understatement was made about a war that lasted for 48 years and took the lives of over 851 billion beings.
“A small, short war that rarely extended throughout more than .02% of the galaxy and .01% by stellar population. … the galaxy’s elder civilisations rate the Idiran-Culture war as … one of those singularly interesting Events they see so rarely these days.”
Function of Understatement
An understatement is a tool that helps to develop other figures of speech such as irony and sarcasm by deliberately decreasing the severity of a situation when an intense response is expected by the listeners or the readers.