The Bedford Glossary of Critical and Literary Terms - Ross Murfin 2018
Litotes: From the Greek for “simple” or “meager,” a trope that involves making an affirmative point by negating its opposite. For instance, the statement “that’s not bad” typically means “that’s good.” Likewise, to say “he’s no liberal” does not literally mean “he is not a liberal,” nor does it mean “he is a moderate”; rather, it means “he is conservative,” perhaps even very conservative. Litotes, a type of meiosis, or understatement, is often used for ironic effect and is a common device in both literature and everyday speech.
EXAMPLES: Aphra Behn used litotes in Oroonoko (1688) to stress the great melancholy Prince Oroonoko feels on being invited to return to the Court after the death of his beloved Imoinda: “He obeyed, tho’ with no little Reluctancy.” Other examples of litotes include “She was nat undergrowe,” Geoffrey Chaucer’s description of the Prioress in the General Prologue to The Canterbury Tales (c. 1387), meaning that she was fat; the Biblical lines “I will multiply them, and they shall not be few; I will make them honoured, and they shall not be small” (Jer. 30:19); and protagonist Holden Caulfield’s false assertion in J. D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye (1951): “It isn’t very serious. I have this tiny little tumor on the brain.”