Figures of speech are legion in the words we say on a daily basis. Yet we often tend to forget it. From the Latin "figura" ("turn"), it is thanks to them that we succeed in giving strength or grace to the discourse. They act on the text in such a way as to amplify, nuance, poetize its meaning, thanks to a set of linguistic processes, as recalled by the Académie française. Le Figaro invites you to (re)discover the litote today.
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"Go, I don't hate you"
The word "litote" makes us think of that famous line of Chimène in Rodrigue, in the Cid of Corneille: "Go, I do not hate you." According to what we learn from the Treasury of the French language, the litote, from the Low Latin "litotes", borrowed from the Greek "litotês", literally means "simplicity, absence of primer". In rhetoric, it is a "figure by which we imply more than we say", either out of modesty like Chimène or out of irony. It is also used to highlight the subject, by contrast effect. But it is not reserved for classical theatre, nor for writers or poets. This figure of speech is indeed rampant in our conversations with phrases such as: "He is not ugly" to say of someone that he is beautiful or "it is not terrible" when we have been disappointed by a dish at the restaurant.
The litote can be constructed in different ways, but often it is based on negation. By using this process of expression, we reinforce the purpose to say of a thing what it is not in order to emphasize what it really is. In the French series Kaamelott, this popular phrase "c'est pas faux" is said several times, to say of one thing that it is true. This example of a litote has entered common parlance as a recurring joke.
Pierre Fontanier, a grammarian of the early nineteenth century, defines litote well in Les Figures du discours. According to him, it is synonymous with "diminishment": "Instead of affirming positively one thing, the litote absolutely denies the contrary thing, or diminishes it more or less, in order to give more energy and weight to the affirmation it disguises." And to add: "This figure is so named, because it pretends to weaken the expression to strengthen it, and it says less to make more heard."
The opposite of euphemism
Be careful, however, not to confuse it with euphemism, a figure of speech very common nowadays thanks to the political correctness that reigns in our time. From the Greek "euphêmismos" ("eu", good, and "phêmê", speech), it is the opposite of the litote since it is precisely "to attenuate a notion whose direct evocation would be unpleasant, vulgar or brutal", recalls Jean-Loup Chiflet, author of Balade littéraire among figures of speech (Figaro littéraire). Examples include phrases such as "he has just left us" to say someone has just died, "the third age" to refer to old people, or "third world countries" to avoid the expression "poor countries".