Yes, we will not

Yes, we will not

In Brief

Figure of speech. To Stephen's arch parliamentary suggestion that the company adjourn for some refreshment, Lenehan responds with an arch proposal to renounce alcohol: "We will sternly refuse to partake of strong waters, will we not?" Then he negates his negation: "Yes, we will not. By no manner of means." In terms of rhetorical theory he has performed a kind of litotes, a type of understatement that affirms something by negating its opposite.

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Litotes (LIE-tuh-teez or lie-TOE-teez, from Greek litos = simple, plain, meager) is a figure which asserts something by denying that the opposite is true, for example saying "Not Bad!" to mean "Good!" or "He's not the sharpest tool in the shed" to mean "He's stupid." Although the words themselves understate the case (as implied by the etymology of calling them small), their effect is to accentute or heighten, sometimes with a strong sense of irony. Richard Nordquist ( quotes an ironic example from the principal in Ferris Bueller's Day Off: "Are you also aware, Mrs. Bueller, that Ferris does not have what we consider to be an exemplary attendance record?" The ironic tone is present too in a lovely expression from Jim Harrison's The Road Home that Nordquist quotes: "Keep an eye on your mother whom we both know doesn't have both oars in the water." And a cosmic irony infuses the chilling moment in To His Coy Mistress when Andrew Marvell points out that sexual opportunities end with death: "The grave's a fine and private place, / But none, I think, do there embrace."

Stuart Gilbert sees an instance of litotes in Mr. O'Madden Burke's response to the defeats of Pyrrhus's troops: "They went forth to battle, but they always fell." There is understatement in this sentence, but it does not affirm anything by negating the contrary. Robert Seidman stands on much firmer ground in citing Lenehan's remark, since by saying We will not refuse to drink he means Let's get very drunk. But the litotes here is not so clearly apparent as in the examples quoted above. Lenehan takes the spirit of negating a negation and elaborates it into a confusing tangle of competing negatives: We will say no, will we not? Yes, we will not say no. Not in the least. Seidman detects still more complexity: "Also antimetabole: repetition of the same words or ideas in transposed order; an epanodos that is also an antithesis." I will leave it to readers who are sufficiently interested to unpack these claims.

JH 2023
Sandwich being regarded as very good. Source:
Victoria showing that she is not amused. Source: