Hyperbole and Litotes, like many of the terms in this series, are relatively uncommon names for figurative devices that all of us have used and heard countless times. A few common examples of each may make the meaning of each term clear before any discussion is needed. Read the following and try to form a definition of each term before reading on:
"He had the strength of ten men."
"She was as big as a house."
"That dog was heavier than a cow!"
"Being tortured with fire must have been somewhat uncomfortable."
"Rap videos with dancers in them are not uncommon."
"There are a few Starbucks in America."
As you have probably gleaned from the examples, hyperbole and litotes are similar devices with opposite effects. Hyperbole is a massive exaggeration, where something is described in a way that is so inflated that it could not be true. No one has the strength of ten men (unless we are talking about superheroes, of course), no person is as large as a house, and no dog can match the mass of a cow. Notice that simile is a very common vehicle for expressing hyperbole, as is metaphor, and there are certain comparative entities that we know will be used to exaggerate a given characteristic of something in comparison. For example, cows are used to indicate and exaggerate weight, Bill Gates, Rockefeller, or Trump to exaggerate wealth, and Einstein to exaggerate intelligence. Note that hyperbole must be used sincerely in order to be considered hyperbole at all. If I call someone Einstein when he is really stupid, this is irony, not hyperbole. If I call my brilliant classmate Einstein, it is obvious that I do not think he is that smart, but it is also obvious that I am using the comparison to highlight his intelligence, rather than to diminish it.
Litotes is almost the opposite of hyperbole; it is massive understatement. With litotes, irony is almost always present, but it does not rest in the falsity of the comparison so much as it does the way it is expressed. In the first litotes example above, it is true that being tortured would not be comfortable. However, there is a definite discrepancy between the act described (fire-torture) and the words used to describe it (somewhat uncomfortable). The descriptive words are not false, but they come nowhere near a full description of the action in question; the torture would not be merely uncomfortable, but rather excruciating. Another frequently employed type of litotes is the denial of something's opposite, as in the second example above. Rap videos with dancers are very, very common, and it might be argued that there are almost no such videos without them. Claiming that they are "not uncommon" is a way of saying that they are somewhat common, when in reality this is massive understatement. Again, it is a true statement, but it doesn't go nearly far enough, and we are left with a witty, humorous effect, reminiscent of stereotypical British humor.
As we can see from the examples and explanations above, these devices work in very different ways. Hyperbole is blatant and obvious, relying on the reader or listener to recognize the exaggeration and appreciate the humorous effect. Litotes, on the other hand, presents its understated comparisons in a much more subdued tone, and it often takes more careful attention from the reader to recognize it. Whereas irony would largely negate the effects of hyperbole, it is an important aspect of litotes, where subtlety and ironic wit are necessary to generate the intended humorous effect.