Lovers of Litotes Say Not Unacceptable Mates Hard to Find

BOSTON.  It’s Friday night, the time when young men and women customarily hit the bars in this city’s Quincy Market area hoping to find someone to spend the rest of the weekend–and perhaps their lives–with.  But Ray Smalley, who already has a long-term girlfriend, is more frustrated with his friend Chad Nichols than any of the women they met inside Chelsea’s, a popular watering hole here.

“Nice to meet you, but I want to go where the mediocre people hang out.”


“I can’t believe you,” Smalley is saying to Nichols as they exit the bar.  “I introduce you to a great woman, and you sit there like a pile of laundry.”

“She was . . . okay,” Nichols says, referring to Ariel Kowalski, a striking blonde who is rising swiftly to the top of the investment side of a life insurance company.

“Okay?” Smalley says in disbelief.  “What was wrong with her?”

“Well,” Nichols begins, as if trying to gather his thoughts for a lengthy recitation, “she was too pretty, and too successful, and too funny.”

“You’re impossible,” Smalley says, before turning to this reporter in exasperation.  “This is what happens with guys who are too into litotes.”

“You’re so funny!  Can we talk about, like, car insurance or something?”


Smalley is referring to the figure of speech that expresses a thought by negating its contrary, as in “This is not a bad sandwich.”  Nichols majored in philosophy during his undergraduate days, specializing in aesthetics with a concentration in figurative language, and ended up writing his senior thesis on litotes, which educated speakers and writers often employ to rebut accusations that they used a double negative.

“What the litotes-obsessed are really looking for is a not-unacceptable mating prospect,” say Phillip Reiner, who studies the impact of the linguistic formulation on the romantic prospects of those who become obsessed with it.  “If, as Freud said, the best we can hope for is ordinary unhappiness, what the litotes crowd wants is to be ordinarily not-unhappy.”

“Maybe if I could see you without makeup sometime.”


Allison Lively, a litotes-impaired senior at Boston University, find herself torn between two young men who are both right for her in many ways, even though they are very different.  “Todd is so creative,” she says of a young man pursuing a master of fine arts in playwriting, a profession at which even the most-accomplished practitioners can’t make a living.  She recently dumped him in favor an MBA student at Harvard, who will likely make millions over the course of his lifetime now that he has been hired by the venture capital firm he worked for last summer.  “He’s going to do very well, but that kind of man usually has a woman on the side,” she frets.  “What I want is a man who’s not unsuccessful,” she says as she tilts her head to one side and looks off into the distance in thought.  “Like the sole stockholder of a one-man accounting firm–or maybe an actuary.”

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