British understatement

Every so often, I ask what people want to know about Britain or the U.S., and every so often they answer. Zipfslaw wrote, “I’d love to know how to understand British understatement. Like, I’ve heard that ‘at your earliest convenience’ means ‘RIGHT NOW’,’ but I don’t really know how it all works.”

Neither do I, so I went running to my strange friend Dr. Google and found a 2001 Guardian article, which gives a memorable example of what happens when the British and non-British try to communicate.

During the Korean War, a British brigadier informed General Soule, his American superior in the U.N. joint command, “Things are a bit sticky, sir,”

He meant they were in serious trouble. “His men were outnumbered eight to one, stranded on every side by human waves of…attackers…. But Gen. Soule understood this to mean ‘We’re having a bit of rough and tumble but we’re holding the line’. Oh good, the general decided, no need to reinforce or withdraw them, not yet anyway.”

More than 500 British soldiers were captured and 59 were killed or missing. Only 39 escaped.

So, yes, I can see why Zipfslaw’s question is worth asking.

Irrelevant photo: a primrose in bloom on a frosty morning.

Irrelevant photo: a primrose in bloom on a frosty morning.

From the Guardian, I went to a site I never expected to visit, Debrett’s, which calls itself “the recognised authority on etiquette, influence and achievement.”

Yes, and modesty as well. Haven’t they heard about understatement? Well, sure they have and here’s what (as the recognized–note the American Z I’m using, please–authority) they say about it:

“A quality that is much revered – and exploited – by the British, understatement is frequently seen as being synonymous with good manners. Understatement is characterised by a number of negatives: a refusal to be effusive, overdramatic, emphatic or didactic. More direct remarks are frequently accompanied by tentative or provisional qualifications: ‘perhaps’, ‘it could be’, ‘I wonder if’, ‘maybe’. The overall effect is an aura of modest reticence, quiet understanding and considerate behaviour. Like self-deprecation, understatement is an attractive and effective quality, which is often more persuasive, and appealing, than a direct approach.
Understatement permeates British humour.”

So that’s the answer aimed at aristocrats and those anyone who wants to behave like aristocrats. J., however, tells me that Northerners and the working class in general are generally more direct than the upper class(es) and people from the Southeast. (I’m not sure where that leaves the Southwest, never mind Wales, Scotland, Northern Ireland, and the Midlands, since I didn’t think to ask, but let’s keep this simple.) Notherners and the working class may be the only reason anyone on this island ever gets out of a burning building: Everyone looks around for someone bold enough to shout, “Fire!” instead of murmuring, “It may soon become a bit warmer here.”

J. told me about a scenario in which an aristocrat offers a working class person a lift, expecting to be politely turned down. But the working class person thinks it’s a genuine offer and accepts it.

Inevitably, it would be raining. I’d have accepted too. The aristocrat would be put out but too polite to say so, and I’d have no idea I just broke the rules. Subtlety’s wasted on me.

At roughly the same time, a different friend whose name also starts with J. sent an email saying something I’d written wasn’t half bad, then added, “(British upper class understatement from 1930s). In fact its a  jolly decent letter.

“Not sure it is just a public school thing though. Consider the (working class ) phrases “fair to middling” and “mustn’t grumble,” which are responses to “How are you?” when the person is actually unwell. Then there is professional middle class mealy mouth. A girl at my school hit a student teacher over the head with a book. On her term report, the teachers wrote, ‘Amanda must not allow her keeness to learn to overcome her natural good manners.’ “
Now that’s understatement.
This is probably a good place to note that “not bad” (depending on the tone of voice) can mean very good, but “not terrible” means bad, although probably not disastrously so.
As people used to say in the U.S. when I was a kid, you can’t tell the players without a scorecard.
I only threw that in because I suspect it’ll be as baffling to anyone who doesn’t already understand it as the not bad/not terrible distinction is to the rest of us.
You can see that understatement quickly shades over into indirectness, or even opposite-of-what-you-mean-ness. On Quora, someone wrote that “incidentally” means “the primary purpose of our discussion is.”
I was beginning to think that you’d have to grow up with this to understand it, but then I found Anglophenia, which along with a few other sites ran a translation chart for a range of phrases. As an example, “I’ll bear it in mind” means I’ve already forgotten it.

Before you decide that expanding your head so it encompasses understatement is all it takes to understand people over here, I’ve also heard classic British overstatement. Friends periodically tell me they’re gasping for a cup of tea, although I have yet to hear an actual gasp. Or that they’re perishing for one, although so far none of they have died when no tea materialized. But then I don’t (thank whatever laws of the universe control these things) hang out in Debrett’s kind of circles.

I’d add more examples here but the only Briitish overstatements I’ve been able to think of involve tea. That’s worth pondering.

In the U.S., Minnesotans are known for their understatement. I’m working from memory, which is an invitation to disaster, but Howard Mohr’s How to Talk Minnesotan had, I think, a segment about a guy using a welding torch near a car’s gas tank. What does the Minnesotan watching him say? “Y’know, a feller might not want to do that.”

So all I can say in answer to Zipfslaw’s question is, Consult your translation chart. It’s incomplete, but that may be a result of classic British understatement.


Apologies to anyone who read this a week and a half ago when I accidentally posted a draft. Since then, I’ve moved three commas, put two of them back where they started, removed a stray URL, and added a photo. You can see, it’s a massive improvement.

I’ve also added J. emailed comment, which is a genuine improvement.

Finally, this P.S. gives me an excuse to mention another crucial cultural difference between the U.S. and Britain that the Guardian quote reminded me of: We do the dash differently. American publishing uses what’s called an em dash–a dash the width of the letter M–with no space on either side. British publishing uses an en dash–the width of the letter N–with a space on either side.

People, this matters.

As always, I welcome your questions and comments. They take me places I wouldn’t have thought to go otherwise.

32 thoughts on “British understatement

  1. I actually spend more time pondering your editing of the draft (which made a very enjoyable post, by the way). I was wondering if you are a perfectionist, grammar fanatic, diligent writer, or … then decided it was none of my damn business and I do the same in any case.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Well, since you’ve raised the issue: I do rewrite a lot, although I wouldn’t say I’m a perfectionist or fanatic about grammar. I did work as an editor, so it matters to me, but what matters more is the sound and flow of the piece. I used to read my work aloud before I sent it out into the world (this was, oh, a hundred or so years ago). I don’t anymore, but I can hear it in my head, and to the extent that I can I want it to be sayable, read-out-loudable, and close to what I’d say if I were talking but more coherent than I usually am in person.

      My comments, on the other hand, I sometimes even forget to reread, so a fair few typos sneak in. If I went over them three or four times, they’d probably be sharper, but there’s only so much time in a life.


  2. Overstatements? I used to live on your side of the Pond, so I understand that traveling by car from say, Oxford to Birmingham, is far more tedious than it is from New York to Philadelphia. However, there are some who make themselves out to be Scotts of the Antarctic when others have to make long commutes when traveling the same distance.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I’ve not been able to read every comment so someone may have already made this point…..
    But when asked “How are you?” Most British people will reply: “Not too bad” which means good; or “Not to good” which means bad.
    A few years ago I decided to reply “I’m just wonderful thank you”. Inevitably this would make both of us smile and feel happy for a while!

    Liked by 1 person

    • A friend who was a nurse (she’s now retired) says that when you ask someone how they are and they say, “Fine,” they’re not fine. If they say, “Good,” they are fine.

      I’m not sure if that only holds true in a medical context.

      How does anything ever get done in this country??


  4. I really enjoyed this treatise on understatement, Ellen. It was very enlightening. I do know the English sometimes do tend toward hyperbole (as in I am gasping for tea). Sometimes I wish we Americans could master the fine art of being understated. Good luck with that one.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Oh Ellen I had to chuckle because our family must have some kind of hold out from our lone British ancestor. We all relate to English movies, humor and know a lot about the understatement. As a matter of fact, it is considered polite in the area I grew up to decline three times when someone offers to pick up a tab. And I use the wrong dash. I’m simply pining to learn more…*EG*

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Fabulous article. Very funny. And as a (British) Southerner, who’s often been slightly taken aback (!) by others’ lack of acquaintance with DeBretts (not yours, I hasten to add), it was nice that you made the distinction between different bits of the UK.


    • Thanks. I’m not reliable about the distinctions, but people do keep tossing out hints. Such as G., who when I said something about her acting as my diplomacy guide (I can’t remember why I said that, or even whether I was serious), said, “Don’t look to me. I’m a northerner.”


  7. I’m Midwestern (as well as American — hah!) and you are so right about the understatement. In fact, you just reminded me of a story that I like so much I’m going to use it in a future post. Two friends of my Grampa Henry were moving a pickle barrel when it crashed and broke into smithereens, spilling the contents all over the root cellar floor. Guy One to Guy Two: ‘oh well, let ‘er go.’


  8. Most of what we say is rooted in or based on irony. For instance if it’s raining enough to flood the street we’ll say it’s a “bit wet.” It’s certainly an understatement but the emphasis (and inherant humour) comes from the irony. I think we Brits tend to use irony as a connection to each other in the same way that families have their own meanings to common words and phrases that outsiders might not understand, so we use irony to bond together. ‘At your earliest convenience’ is a bit different in that it was originally formal language, used by people in authority, so when someone ‘ordinary’ uses it, it makes the meaning, (which is “as soon as possible”) condescendingly emphasised. If used out of context, it draws attention to the person saying it.

    There’s still a lot of irony used by Brits in the North of England but it’s based on their regional cultures. They are much more direct than southerners but that’s more in their attitude than anything else. As they put it, they don’t mince their words… what they want to say and do comes out plainly stated. Irony’s also used in the other regions of the UK.

    Liked by 1 person


  10. Could you elaborate upon the British difference between, “Mary dear,” and, “Mary darling.”
    My mother-in-law (born in London in 1900) called me the former for the first 13 years I was married to my husband, and then it changed to the latter.
    She also called me a brick, which was a high complement.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I don’t hear any difference in fondness levels between “Mary dear” and “Mary darling.” English has endless layers of words with roughly the same meanings, although it’s possible that for her they marked different levels of closeness. A brick, though, is a compliment–someone you can count on. Someone who helped you out at a time when you really needed it.


  11. Pingback: Ian Dury – New Boots and Panties!! – Classic Music Review | altrockchick

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