Amuse-Bouche: What’s Litotes?

When is an insult not an insult?

Isabelle has invited les copains (pals) to dinner. She brings in the entrée (“appetizer,” not “entree”) hot from the oven, gives each of us a slice, watches to see if we like it. François-Noël swallows his first bite and announces,“Ça se laisse manger” (“It lets itself be eaten”—i.e., it’s edible). Quoi? He’s usingune litote (lee TUT), understatement. His slangy expression means Isabelle’s quiche is delicious. But don’t say that to your boss’s wife. Context is important. Depending on your tone of voice, “elle n’est pas mal” (she’s not bad) can mean anything from she’s okay to she’s gorgeous. In a classic litote, you take the opposite of what you mean and put it in the negative: Il ne fait pas chaud (it’s not hot) means it’s freezing out. Isabelle might have answered François-Noël, “Ah bon, c’est pas trop dégueulasse?” (It doesn’t make you feel like throwing up?)

My sister, ever the literature professor, uses the English pronunciation: “Lye TOE teez? That’s a figure of classical rhetoric; to show irony, you use the negative of its contrary. Put simply, you say the least to mean the most. I teach it to my students.”Sympathique! (Nice!) All the irony is in my voice, but it’s still une litote. I really mean c’est pas sympa’. I’m glad college English is far behind me. The French use litotes all the time. Oblique language, particularly understatement, shows your esprit(cleverness) and subtilité (sophistication). To be truly spirituel (“witty,” not “spiritual”), you have to master l’euphémisme, la nuance, le non-dit (the unsaid) and le sous-entendu (hidden meaning). They say “elle est sortable” (you can take her out), to mean “She’s a babe.” If you hear “On se téléphone” (Let’s stay in touch), it may or may not happen.

Assez! (All right already!). I have enough trouble just being clear. In multicultural America you have to be explicit, because fewer and fewer people are native English speakers. We are taught to value “plain speaking” — transparence — not ambiguité. Poor, flat-footed Americans are simply trying to avoid misunderstandings. The French challenge you to think. Often they’ll say one thing to imply something else. Above all, they abhor banality. I remember the day Michel said he’d try to give me a ride to the airport, but he wasn’t sure. When I got home there was a note on my door: “Je suis passé te dire au revoir” (I came by to tell you goodbye). Unspoken was: “Sorry I can’t take you to the airport.”

The word litote itself is an example of what I nickname “mots-mode” (fashionable words), like velléité (whim) or en l’occurrence(in this case). These sometimes obscure words and expressions become extremely popular as “in” or “out” identifiers among groups of people who love le mot juste (the perfect word), particularly if they think you don’t know what it means. Another common phrase is “Revenons à nos moutons” (“Let’s get back to our sheep,” i.e., the subject—a quote from a medieval farce). Paradoxically, such in-jokes have often become clichés. In fact, that one was a cliché by the end of the play.

But revenons à nos moutons. The French, reluctant to dire ce qui est évident (state the obvious), love the ambiguity of la litote. Famous examples abound. Every high school kid knows the scene in Le Cid when Chimène says to Rodrigue: “Va, je ne te hais point” (Go, I don’t hate you at all). Serge Gainsbourg goes even further in his classic song “Je T’aime, Moi Non Plus”: “I love you,” sighs Jane Birkin. “Me neither,” Serge replies. Of course he originally wrote the song for Brigitte Bardot.