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What Is an Understatement?

By G. Wiesen
Updated May 23, 2024
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An understatement is an expression that indicates something of significantly less severity or power than should reasonably be represented. For example, if someone's business goes under, forcing an owner to declare bankruptcy, it would be reasonable for that person to say something like, "This is a disaster;" an understatement might be, "We are having some minor difficulties." This type of expression is commonly used for comedy, in which it is considered a form of irony, though it should not be confused with the use of euphemisms.

There are a few different reasons for someone using an understatement, though it is frequently used to diffuse a potentially tense or stressful situation. Pilots controlling planes that have undergone serious technical malfunctions, for example, have often been heard making comments to other crew and passengers that severely understate the possibly catastrophic outcome of the situation. In this scenario, the pilot is able to remain calm, and can try to keep others from panicking, allowing events to unfold in a more constrained manner. This type of understatement serves a very real function, as the mood of the person in control can influence the reactions of others in a stressful event.

Understatement can also be used for comedic effect, typically as a form of irony. In general, irony refers to an event that occurs, which is the opposite of or highly unlike what is expected. An understatement is a comment that severely underplays the seriousness or traumatic nature of an event, and so it is unlike the expected response. In a film or television show, the heroes may find themselves surrounded by enemies in a situation that seems hopeless, at which point one might remark, "Well, we're in a bit of trouble." This is intended as a comedic line, since it downplays the situation in which they find themselves.

Although somewhat similar in structure, an understatement should not be confused with a euphemism. Euphemisms are typically used to offset a comment that might be considered rude or overly familiar, allowing someone to broach an uncomfortable subject in a way that retains politeness or formality. An understatement can certainly be used to not seem argumentative, but it does so by downplaying the nature of a situation. Euphemisms typically use a particular phrase or unrelated concept to convey a potentially sensitive meaning; an expression like "passed away" is often used instead of "dying" when talking to someone about a recently deceased relative.

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Discussion Comments

By lighth0se33 — On Jul 18, 2012

@Perdido – His understatement also had a double meaning, since the wind probably did pick up several things and throw them around! I know what it is like to have a worrisome mother, though. I probably would have done the same thing.

My mother always used to worry about me when I was living in the dorms in college. She always asked me if I was eating right. I told her that I had fruit salad every day, along with pasta and plenty of protein, and that seemed to satisfy her.

What I was actually eating were super sugary, preserved fruit cups, the kind of noodles that sell for a few cents a pack and have no nutritional value but fill you up, and hot dogs. If she knew how much of an understatement I had made about my diet, she would have worried herself sick.

By Perdido — On Jul 18, 2012

I heard the biggest understatement ever uttered when my boyfriend was on the phone with his mother. She knew that we had been having some severe weather, and she kept calling to check on us.

She had been watching the national weather radar, so she knew that we were under a tornado warning. He kept telling her that we had seen some storm clouds, but nothing bad had come our way yet. We lived in a large county, so it was possible for one section to be receiving severe weather while the other went untouched.

Suddenly, we saw a funnel cloud drop down about a mile away. Right at that instant, his mother called, and he said, “The wind is picking up a little right now. Let me call you back.” We headed for the shelter, and even though I was terrified, I couldn't help but laugh at his understatement.

By StarJo — On Jul 17, 2012

@shell4life – I understand why a doctor might use an understatement to protect a patient's health, but what about the poor family members? Shouldn't they be told what to expect?

I would want to know if my mother or father were in serious danger of dying. You want to give everyone time to pray fervently and call in relatives to say goodbye. If a doctor uses understatements, he could rob families of this opportunity.

I think that a doctor should always consult with the family separately from the patient if the patient is unstable and unable to handle bad news. Someone should be prepared for what might happen.

By shell4life — On Jul 16, 2012

Doctors in hospitals sometimes use understatements when telling patients' families about the severity of their conditions. This is not always the case, but I have seen it happen before.

I am a nurse, so I sometimes have to be in the room seeing to the patient as the doctor talks to the family. I have heard some doctors use serious understatements so as not to alarm them, and sometimes, this benefits the patient.

For example, if it is critical that a patient remain calm in order to remain stable, it might be wise for the doctor to use an understatement. If a sudden rise in blood pressure could send the patient into cardiac arrest, then he certainly wouldn't want to upset him.

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