Understate to Underline

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California—where Chandler’s novels are set—on a good day


Wealthy client speaks first. Detective-for-hire speaks second.


“Tell me about yourself, Mr. Marlowe. I suppose I have a right to ask?”

“Sure, but there’s very little to tell. I’m thirty-three years old, went to college once and can still speak English if there’s any demand for it. There isn’t much in my trade. I worked for Mr. Wilde, the District Attorney, as an investigator once. His chief investigator, a man named Bernie Ohls, called me and told me you wanted to see me. I’m unmarried because I don’t like policemen’s wives.”

It’s humour this week, and today I’m featuring one last Quote from Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep (for a while, at least).

If you read my previous post, Stained-Glass Romance, or indeed any of last week’s posts about Marlowe’s adventures, you’ll have a context for the Quote, and it’ll mean something if I say the client speaking is General Sternwood, whose front door accommodates Indian elephants and whose stained-glass windows feature clumsy, sociable knights attempting to untie scantily clad damsels bound to trees.

If you don’t have the context, you need none.

What makes the Quote quiver?

Ironic self-deprecation.

vittorio-sommella https://unsplash.com/photos/t0WjbJCs-t8
A window into Marlowe’s world


The key sentence is the one concerning his age, and the one about wives.

I’m thirty-three years old, went to college once and can still speak English if there’s any demand for it.

The first clause is a fact, the second is a fact that could be interpreted in a number of ways: he could have gone to college for a few days, a few months, a few years, until he got a degree; we don’t know. The third clause is also loaded but with different information: it tells us Marlowe thinks his trade might not require a lot of talking in (good) English, or that others might think that it doesn’t. All said in the name of humour, of course.

I’m unmarried because I don’t like policemen’s wives.

A woman wouldn’t be a policeman’s wife until she married a policeman, so Marlowe is not saying he doesn’t like women or having a wife in general, just that he doesn’t like who women turn into after they marry a policeman, namely, him.

What is at the core of the Quote?

Adianoeta, litotes, paradox.

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If you can’t live there, you can at least read about fictional crime there


Adianoeta: went to college once can be interpreted in at least two distinct ways: he spent a lot of time there (assumed, idiomatic), or he spent a little time there and fooled around more than he studied.

An adianoeta with a risqué interpretation is a double entendre. A lewd double entendre would be called a cacemphaton (which is Greek for ill-sounding) and I couldn’t help but include one. You’ve met General Sternwood above; he has two daughters, both of which are attractive and attracted to Marlowe. At one point, after both girls have been trying to get Marlowe’s attention, he says: The Sternwood girls were giving me both barrels that night.

The statement about policemen’s wives is a paradox, a seemingly self-contradictory statement which may upon analysis prove to be true. It’s also another form of ironical understatement.

Finally, saying that he can still speak English if there’s any demand for it is a deliberate understatement which highlights the understated fact. I’d call this a litotes.

Most definitions of litotes say it’s an understatement intended to intensify the meaning, often by expressing an affirmative in denying the contrary. The often then seems to turn into always. So a typical litotes would be: I can’t say I haven’t been to college or I can’t say that I don’t speak English. Which isn’t precisely what we have here, but I was unable to find a better rhetorical fit other than just general irony. (Anyone have a better fit? I don’t think meiosis works either.)

Not that there aren’t good examples of litotes in The Big Sleep (see what figure I used just now?). For example, Mrs Regan, one of the two Sternwood daughters, tries to pump Marlowe for information and fails. She then concludes:

You’re not much of a gusher, are you, Mr. Marlowe?

Or Eddie Mars, one of the main antagonists, tells Marlowe to get the police off his back, or else …

I’m nice to be nice to, soldier. I’m not nice not to be nice to.

The not nice implies nasty, and the not to be nice to implies anything other than nice. It’s a sneaky litotes that underlines the meaning better than saying, for example, I’m nasty to be impolite to.

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Gratuitous lusting after a blue-meets-blue horizon


In his book The Elements of Eloquence Forsyth comments that litotes isn’t the best figure to use when you’re trying to be grand. Litotes does not stir the soul, it’s more suited to stirring tea. But after that Eddie Mars line, I’m not sure I believe Forsyth. Indeed, I think he’s partially motivated by the typically British exchanges that employ the litotes and that he cites:

“Well I’ll be damned if it isn’t old Bertie. How are you?”
“Can’t complain, old boy, can’t complain.”
“Would it be awfully wrong to tempt you with a drink?”
“I wouldn’t say no.”

(That second line is a diacope, by the way, which is often employed for emphasis like here.)


Those who have been reading QQ for a while will know I have a proclivity—that is slowly becoming a predilection—for citing E. B. White whenever appropriate. I am yet to find a comparable other source of gentle, insightful wisdom that covers such a large number of subjects. Here is E. B. White on humour, taken from Some Remarks on Humour in Essays of E. B. White.

Humour can be dissected, as a frog can, but the thing dies in the process and the innards are discouraging to any but the pure scientific mind.

Be yours a scientific mind or not, rest assured that whilst I may have exposed the innards of the first few pages of Chandler’s first novel, there is the remainder of the book and another six novels after that. It would take me decades to despoil them of their humour. Let’s hope that I have better things to do come 2027.

Reading Recommendations

  1. The Big Sleep, Raymond Chandler.
  2. The Elements of Eloquence, Mark Forsyth. Its British humour about words.
  3. The Figure of Friends and Flirts, QQ. About another kind of humour for which it takes two.
  4. Other Marlowe posts, QQ.

Author: A Quiver of Quotes

Jousts with words, jaunts through all genres. In favour of hendiadys, synaesthesia, and the transferred epithet. Books, books, books. Writing. Author of https://quiverquotes.com

6 thoughts on “Understate to Underline”

    1. Thanks!
      As for dissecting humour, I still think it’s necessary on occasion, at least at the beginning, especially if you care about the linguistic mechanisms … which amounts to having a scientific mind 🙂 So yes, he’s right all the way!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Yes, dissecting really gives a great view of how it really works, and it’s indeed important. Especially if we want to write. Did you study linguistics, in school or is it your personal interest?

        Liked by 1 person

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