Quote: “Her Majesty did not appear to be amused.” The Washington Post, after President Bush mistakenly suggested that Queen Elizabeth witnessed the American Revolution.
Figure of Speech: litotes (lie-TOE-tees), the figure of ironic understatement. From the Greek, meaning “meager.”
The Queen, Bush noted in a White House Rose Garden welcome, “helped our nation celebrate its bicentennial in 17…” He instantly corrected himself, saying “in 1976.” Bush made a joke of it, saying the Queen gave him a look “only a mother could give a child.” We’re not sure what he meant, but it probably didn’t make Her Majesty feel any younger.
The Washington Post doesn’t help matters by quoting (in journalese) Queen Victoria, who responded to an off-color joke by one of her grooms-in-waiting: “We are not amused.” It’s the most famous litotes in history — which isn’t saying a whole heck of a lot, to coin another litotes.
Nonetheless, it’s a wonderful figure to use if you want to sound royal. Don’t bloviate. Litoteate.
Snappy Answer: “She was just trying to remember what happened in 1776.”
For more on the litotes, see page 219 of Figaro’s book.