What can be said about a literary device which packs in a major punch, and yet remains as humble as ever? This Penlighten post defines and explains understatement, and to say that it will make a decent read is itself an understatement.
“I just sit at my typewriter and curse a bit.”
― P.G. Wodehouse
So said the very remarkable humorist, author, playwright, and lyricist, Sir Pelham Grenville Wodehouse. What better way to begin a piece on understatements than to insert a line from the master himself?
An understatement, as you must have realized by now, is a literary device which involves the deliberate use of a weaker phrase to downplay the situation. It is used as an ironic response to something, to bring in the element of wry humor.
Definition of Understatement
The Cambridge dictionary defines understatement as:
a statement that describes something in a way that makes it seem less important, serious, bad, etc. than it really is, or the act of making such statements
Examples of Understatement
Understatement, as a literary device, has been put to excellent use in poetry, prose, song lyrics, movie dialogs, and feature stories. In Great Britain, particularly, the understatement has gone on to become an art form that has completely seeped into everyday communication―a fact evident from their newspaper headlines.
The Avengers | 2012 film
Tony Stark: You should come by Stark Tower sometime. Top 10 floors all R&D, you’d love it… it’s candyland.
Bruce Banner: Thanks, but the last time I was in New York I kind of broke… Harlem.
As the audiences would be aware, the usually mild-mannered Dr. Banner’s alter-ego, the perpetually-angry Hulk had more or less pulverized Harlem on his previous outing in the city.
P. G. Wodehouse | Over Seventy: An Autobiography with Digressions
Jeeves: If you will turn your head, you will observe that a bear is standing in your immediate rear inspecting you in a somewhat menacing manner.
Bertie (as the narrator): I pivoted the loaf. The honest fellow was perfectly correct. It was a bear. And not a small bear, either. One of the large economy size. Its eye was bleak and it gnashed a tooth or two, and I could see at a g. that it was going to be difficult for me to find a formula. “Advise me, Jeeves,” I yipped. “What do I do for the best?”
Jeeves: I fancy it might be judicious if you were to make an exit, Sir.
Always the tone of courtesy, Jeeves responds in a manner associated with the inimitably British sense of straight-faced humor. An instance of a classic understatement, if there ever was one.
J. K. Rowling | Harry Potter and The Chamber of Secrets
Minerva McGonagall: We teachers are rather good at magic, you know.
As an accomplished teacher herself, McGonagall expresses a classic understated jibe at her students, who, in all their naivety, try to outdo their teachers.
Jane Austen | Pride and Prejudice
Mrs. Bennet: Have you no consideration for my poor nerves?
Mr. Bennet: You mistake me, my dear. I have the utmost respect for your nerves. They’ve been my constant companion these twenty years.
Sugarcoated sarcasm is perhaps a constant feature in conversations that take place between married people, especially those married for long. Jane Austen managed to capture this beautifully in Pride and Prejudice, in all interactions between the Bennet couple.
Harper Lee | To Kill a Mockingbird
Reverend Sykes: You all know of Brother Tom Robinson’s trouble.
The “trouble” that the Reverend here is referring to is that Tom Robinson, a black man, was on the death trial for raping a white woman.
Jonathan Swift | A Modest Proposal
I can think of no one objection that will possibly be raised against this proposal, unless it should be urged that the number of people will be thereby much lessened in the kingdom.
Jonathan Swift’s The Modest Proposal is a satirical essay mocking the Irish government’s apathy towards its impoverished citizens. In the essay, Swift made the ‘modest’ proposal suggesting that Ireland’s economic woes could be eased by selling the children born to the poor as food for rich class. The understated remark mentioned here comes towards the conclusion of the essay.