The Art Of The Downplay

I was idly thumbing through the newspaper the other day when my eye fell on this headline. 

“Woman surprised by snake in bathroom at midnight.” 

Now I put it to you, ladies and g’s, no right thinking person is ever “surprised” by a snake in their bathrooms at midnight. They are terrified, petrified, scared silly perhaps. Some might even have had a bowel movement in their pants.

But “surprised?” You’ve got to be kidding. It brings to mind a mere pursing of the lips, perhaps an arch of an eyebrow or a sudden intake of breath as the “surprise” kicks in. 

Ah, the English language. Always pliable. The headline would qualify as an understatement, which can be broadly translated as representing a situation for less than what it is. In short, it’s the downplaying of an event for effect, humour or modesty.

Like after a torrential storm just dumped 100 inches of rain over Kuala Lumpur and have a newscaster describe the event as being “a trifle moist.” 

It’s employed a great deal in literature, even in comics. Do you remember the strip that ran in the daily papers in the 60s and 70s called Li’l Abner by Al Capp? 

It had a great cast of characters including a detective with a pencil moustache called Fearless Fosdick who got shot through the head so often that it usually featured as a literal hole in his head.

And asked about his health afterwards. The great crime buster, said hole in head all present and accounted for, would invariably reply: “It’s just a flesh wound, Chief.” 

I used to love the strip because it often employed word play to illustrate its humour. The makers of Kickapoo Joy Juice, for example, would often toss in a snarling bear – all sharp teeth and claws – into a vat boiling over a fire “for more bite.” 

There have been famous understatements in history. The most famous was probably Henry Morton Stanley’s quip when he finally met the man he was searching for after a 700-mile trek through the forests of Zanzibar: “Dr Livingstone, I presume?”

He was looking at English missionary David Livingstone who had been lost for several years. 

Everyone has heard of James Watson and Francis Crick, the two biochemists who unlocked the structure of the building blocks of existence itself. But not many people will remember the way they downplayed their discovery to the world. 

“The structure has novel features which may be of significant biological interest.” They were referring to the double helix-structure of deoxyribonucleic acid, or DNA. 

It may have been the greatest scientific understatement of the 20th Century.

Emperor Hirohito knew how to break bad news to the Japanese public. This was how he announced Japan’s surrender to the Allies over radio in 1945.  “The war in the Pacific has not necessarily developed in Japan’s favour,” he said deadpan. 

Even Psycho had nothing on Jeffrey Dahmer, an American serial killer who is also accused of cannibalism and necrophilia.  When he was finally caught, he casually asked the police: “I really messed up, didn’t I?”  

On the other hand, there’s overstatement, which is a gazillion times worse than understatement and is its polar opposite. Overstatement is rank exaggeration or hyperbole. 

Here’s Johnny Carson for illustration:

“It was so cold in the city yesterday that the flashers had to resort to describing themselves.” 


“It was so hot yesterday that I actually saw a squirrel fanning his nuts.”