Some Famous Quotations Displaying Understatement

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A Brief History

On November 10, 1871, Welsh-American journalist Henry Morton Stanley finally met the man he had come so far to see, the missionary Rev. David Livingstone, prompting Stanley to blandly state, “Dr. Livingstone, I presume?”  As if it was some other Rev. Livingstone in the African jungle!  People sometimes understate things, and today we look at a few of those notable occurrences, but first we are compelled to say a bit about Henry Morton Stanley, a really fascinating guy.

Digging Deeper

Stanley was born John Rowlands in Wales in 1841, to an unwed 18 year old mother that abandoned the baby.  Baby John, an “illegitimate” child, was raised by his mother’s father until that man died when John was only 5 years old, putting John in the hands of the local version of an orphanage, the St. Asaph Union Workhouse for the poor.  At the age of 18, John Rowlands came to the United States with nothing to his name.  Fortunately, John met a man named Henry Hope Stanley that was childless and gladly took in John as his own son.  John took the man’s name for his own and became Henry Stanley.

Stanley led a remarkable life, serving in the Confederate Army during the American Civil War, at least until he was captured by the Union forces at Shiloh.  Barely surviving in the hell of a prisoner of war camp, Stanley agreed to change sides and join the Union Army, serving with the US Army until discharged due to severe illness.  Stanley then worked as a merchant sailor and then joined the US Navy where he became a record keeper.  His Navy experience with writing caused him to seek employment as a journalist, a career he pursued after jumping ship in 1865!

Stanley became somewhat of a journalist/adventurer, going on expeditions in the Ottoman Empire and Africa, seeking stories and adventure.  In 1869, he decided on his seminal quest, that of finding the “lost” missionary David Livingstone and while he was at it, the source of the Nile River. Setting off from Zanzibar in 1871 with a massive retinue of 192 porters (or 111, depending on the source), Stanley trudged around the disease ridden countryside for 700 miles over 8 months before finding Livingstone alive and well.  Many men and animals, including Stanley’s prized horse died on the expedition.  Did Stanley even utter his famous phrase, or did he later invent it for his readers?  We do not know, but we do know the line, “Dr. Livingstone, I presume?” is a Quotation Hall of Fame worthy quote in the annals of understatement.  (Note: There is no Quotation Hall of Fame.)  Stanley also provided valuable mapping and reports of the interior of Africa.

Another entry in the category of understatement was uttered by British Royal Navy Admiral David Beatty during the Battle of Jutland in 1916, a remark made in the aftermath of 2 of his battlecruisers blowing up in front of his eyes.  The future 1st Lord of the Admiralty is quoted as saying, “There’s Something Wrong with Our Bloody Ships Today!”  (He may have thrown in a “seems to be” between the word There and the word Something.)  the Royal Navy considered itself the master of all the seas, with no other naval force worthy of serious competition with the British fleet.  They were wrong.  At Jutland during World War I (May 31-June 1, 1916) the British Fleet faced the German Imperial Navy, fully expecting to decisively defeat the Germans and remove any German challenge to British mastery of the seas.  Instead, the British nose got royally bloodied when British losses included 3 battle cruisers sunk, 3 armored cruisers sunk, and 8 destroyers sunk, with the loss of over 6000 sailors killed.  German losses, while significant, were far less, with the loss of a battle cruiser, an obsolete battleship, 4 light cruisers and 5 torpedo boats, along with about 2500 German sailors killed.

The British people are nothing if not famous for understatement.  During the Korean War at the Battle of the Imjin River in 1951, when his men were outnumbered and likely to be overrun, the British commander reported to his superior of his situation: “Things are a bit sticky, sir.”  Brigadier General Tom Brodie of the Gloucestershire Regiment told this innocuous sounding message to his superior, General Robert H. Soule, US Army.  General Soule, being American and not familiar with the nuance of British understatement, took the message to mean his British subordinates were engaged heavily, but did not understand that what Brodie really meant was that the situation was desperate.  The 600 beleaguered British troops tried to hold off a mass of Chinese troops numbering around 30,000, killing perhaps 10,000 of the swarming communist soldiers before finally being overrun themselves.

Then there are the immortal words of Japanese Emperor Hirohito, regarding the trend of the War in the Pacific during World War II, when Japan was on the brink of defeat, “The war in the Pacific has not necessarily developed in Japan’s favor.”  This was but one line in the statement Hirohito recorded to be broadcast to his nation in announcing the unconditional surrender of Japan to the Allied forces that had been grinding the Japanese military into ground meat the past couple years, not to mention burning Japanese cities to the ground and nearly starving the nation by a blockade of the country.  Oh, and the Americans had dropped nuclear bombs on 2 Japanese cities.  Not necessarily in Japan’s favor!

Getting back to the British, that bottomless pit of understatement, we find a survivor of the RMS Titanic disaster, Sir Cosmo Duff Gordon describing the experience thusly, “It was a rather serious evening, you know.”  Yes, it was!  The largest and most luxurious ship in the world had just sunk on its maiden voyage, taking between 1500 and 1600 people to their deaths.  Rather serious.

The subject of understatement almost cries out in demand of jokes being made of hypothetical statements made by historical figures, a temptation we will pass on at this time.  Perhaps some of our readers can come up with funny things that may have been said by George A. Custer when he was confronted by a bajillion Native American warriors, or other such comedy rich potential situations.  Your turn…

Question for students (and subscribers): What is your favorite famous quote that demonstrates extreme understatement?  Please let us know in the comments section below this article.

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Historical Evidence

For more information, please see…

Fox, Lily Anne. The Mind-Blowing Book of Famous Quotations: Insight, Inspiration and Humour in One Epic Collection of Famous Quotations! Independently published, 2019.

Kelly, Joanne. The Gigantic Book of Famous Quotations: Over 12,000 Famous Quotations to Inspire, Motivate, Comfort and Amuse You! Independently published, 2019.

Prefontaine, M. The Funniest Quotes Book: 1001 Of The Best Humourous Quotations. MP Publishing, 2016.

The featured image in this article, an illustration from Stanley’s 1872 book How I Found Livingstone (Paris: Hachette, 1876), is in the public domain in its country of origin and other countries and areas where the copyright term is the author’s life plus 70 years or fewer.


About Author

Major Dan

Major Dan is a retired veteran of the United States Marine Corps. He served during the Cold War and has traveled to many countries around the world. Prior to his military service, he graduated from Cleveland State University, having majored in sociology. Following his military service, he worked as a police officer eventually earning the rank of captain prior to his retirement.