• Jacob-B
    The British Understatement

    ‘He is not Einstein’ my friend states referring to someone we both know. Obviously, the statement is not meant to be taken literally, no one on the planet is Einstein. Such a description of a person is a colourful understatement. We could have described the person as stupid’ moron, idiot, and other adjectives each of them much more offensive than ‘Not Einstein’. (‘not very bright’ would be another understatement describing the same person but a less humorous one)

    I return home. Outside the temperature is well below zero. ‘What is it like outside?’ my wife asks. ‘A bit on the cold side’, I answer, It is the sort of reply most Englishmen (I am not one) would use that sort reply. ‘Not too bad is the most common reply to ‘How are you?’ That, replies cold understates of robust health and elated mood, or on the other hand feeling sick and being beset by problems (an overstatement in that case). The understatement is deeply embedded in everyday conversation and beyond.

    Is the Understatement just a minor aspect of humour in geneat.? I think that it is more than that.
    I guess that it might be a way of viewing the world in a fizzy balanced way, a way that contrasts with viewing the world in harsh black and white terms. Might the understatement be a contributing factor to British tolerance? Has the British understatement equivalents in other languages?
  • Jack Cummins

    I found it interesting that you have just suggested the British understatement, because I have become aware that I am inclined to overstate my ideas generally, thinking of the extreme implications. I think that I probably do it for effect in conversations, hoping for a reaction and, often, I don't even get one. I wonder if the reason for my tendency to overstate is a stand against people understating. I don't like ideas or other aspects of life being watered down and weakened into insignificance. When I speak of overstating, I try not to exaggerate but just try to spell out details which I feel may be glossed over otherwise.

    However, I don't think that I am intolerant and not sure that there is any connection between the two tendencies. Of course, I suppose it does depend what one is intolerant of, because I am simply meaning that I am tolerant of other people. Also, I do see humour as essential to life.
  • bongo fury
    Slight hiccup...
  • bongo fury
    I'm somewhat sympathetic to Goodman's analysis, in which this figure and its various relatives are seen as suggesting dramatic recalibrations of the ordering implied by some or other established usage:


    (From Languages of Art.)

    British tolerance?Jacob-B

    No hint of irony, here?
  • Banno
    Arguably it is not a British trait but Celtic. Celtic humour is ripe with irony, as seen in the self-deprecation that is simply not understood in 'merica. Communication is indirect, intended to avoid creating conflict by minimising differences.
  • Pfhorrest
    I’m reminded of a similar way of speaking that’s commonly in computers programming circles, where there’s no such thing as a “difficult” problem, only a “non-trivial” one.
  • god must be atheist
    In the Hungarian culture, overstatements are more popular. "He cries (complains) like an employee in a Turkish bath", "Don't ask" (to "how are you?") "You are so stupid without a warm-up as others with a good running start" -- courtesy of Gyorgy Moldova, "Her ass was as big as fifty cents' worth of of a farmer's melon field." These expressions date back to the early seventies and before, so please forgive my anachronistic sexism.

    I was at a Hungarian national ethnic picnic once. Picnic tables. Kids running around. A kid came to our table, and grinned. About 6 years of age. "What's your name, friendly fellah?" We asked. He replied with no words, just kept on grinning." "Where is your mommy and daddy?" Grin for reply. Few more questions like that, and a man in our company said, "he has beautiful, smart eyes like growths of mold do."

    Hungarian is a colorful language. If you knew the grammar, or knew ABOUT how its grammar works, you'd run like hell to the nearest hills.
  • god must be atheist
    I’m reminded of a similar way of speaking that’s commonly in computers programming circles, where there’s no such thing as a “difficult” problem, only a “non-trivial” one.Pfhorrest

    Well, actually, the programmers' understatement is not. Programming, when approached properly, can be broken down to bite-size (not computer byte, but human bite, in a figurative meaning) solutions. That's one of the beauties of programming.

    Of course, breaking down processes, like grammar check, may be not trivial, that is, it may be difficult to do that, so ultimately you're right. The difficulty is not on the programming side, normally, but on the side of the "outside expertise". Grammar is hardly known to a deeper extent by almost all Americans; yet you need to know grammar and how it works to incorporate it in a grammar checker program.
  • Hanover
    The British humor I think that doesn't translate well in the US isn't so much the sarcasm or understatement, but the absurd (like Monty Python), the mindless silly (like Mr. Bean), and the frantic nonsense (like Benny Hill).
  • Tom Storm
    Probably Celtic. Australians do this. Well, we used to. My uncle's house burned down. First thing his friend at work says to him is, 'I hear you had a little barbeque at your place the other day.'

    'He's no Einstein' is a cliche now but I imagine it might have been a Jewish American joke. Jewish humor is full of wonderful downplaying of problems.
  • EricH
    Funny you should bring this up. This was on my Facebook feed just a few days ago:

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