Since "petit" and "peu" both mean "little" or "small" or "a few", doesn't that make the two words near-synonyms? if so, doesn't this fact make the idiom "un petit peu" a tautology? Like saying in English "A little little"?

A tautology according to Wikipedia is:

"In literary criticism and rhetoric, a tautology is a statement that repeats an idea, using near-synonymous morphemes, words or phrases, effectively "saying the same thing twice".[1][2]... Intentional repetition may emphasize a thought or help the listener or reader understand a point.[4]

So, does the idiom "un petit peu" have a tautology?

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    I might just be wrong but to me "tautology" is distinct from "emphatic repetition." A tautology is something like "I always find things in the last place I look" -- you stop looking once you've found something. "Un petit peu" is more of an emphatic repetition to me. Commented Aug 7, 2023 at 23:23
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    @CharlesHudgins This is why I suggested "pleonasm" under Frank's answer. However, while reading about this, I learned that the domain of style has its own jargon where "tautology" does mean this, despite it being quite different your and my domain of logic/argumentation where it means what you said.
    – Luke Sawczak
    Commented Aug 8, 2023 at 2:49
  • Tautologies are not banned in natural speech anyway :) Commented Aug 8, 2023 at 19:24
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    No tautology. Petit is an intensifier. A petit peu is smaller than a peu.
    – user207421
    Commented Aug 9, 2023 at 1:58
  • Bien peu, assez peu, fort peu, quelque peu, extrêmement peu, suffisamment peu, terriblement peu, trop peu, moyennement peu, quelque peu...
    – jlliagre
    Commented Aug 9, 2023 at 9:51

4 Answers 4


(TLFi) Rem. 1. Un peu peut être nuancé par l'adj. petit (lui-même pouvant être modifié par un adv.).
• Laissant voir les cailloux écrasés faire par place un petit peu de farine (Ramuz, Gde peur mont., 1926, p.76).
• On a pleuré un peu? Un petit peu? Un tout petit peu? (Claudel, Échange, 1954, II, p.765).

D. Adj. - notion de quantité début xiies. poi (St Brendan, 1452); - notion de temps id. (ibid., 1774). Du lat. vulg. paucum, neutre adv. tiré du lat. class. paucus «peu nombreux» (empl. surtout au plur.) qui a éliminé les adv. class. parum «peu» et paulum «un peu» (cf. ital.-esp. poco, port. pouco). Paucum a donné régulièrement pou (forme empl. dans Alexis), var. po, pic. pau, devenu peu vers le mil. du xiies. soit par fermeture de ọṷ en o̱ṷ, l'accent étant devenu secondaire dans des expr. du type pou de témp (R. Haberl ds Z. rom. Philol. t.36, p.309), soit par assimilation d'aperture du 1er élém. au second (Fouché, t.2, p.309). Une autre forme poi (empl. dans Roland) est d'orig. très discutée, v. FEW t.8, p.54b-55a. Pour Hasselrot (St. neophilol. t.17, p.287), elle serait issue de pauci, nomin. masc. plur. de paucus, devenu powi (au lieu de *poydzi) p. anal. avec paucus > powus. Cette hyp. est étayée par l'empl. fréq. de poi = pauci. À la différence de la plupart des autres lang. rom., le gallo-rom. n'emploie guère paucus que dans sa forme indéclinable. L'empl. de l'adj. lat. ne persiste pas au-delà de l'a. fr. (supra D). Dans les parlers gallo-rom. (en partic. dans l'Ouest), peu est concurrencé par l'expr. un petit att. dès 1135 en a. fr. (petit). La loc. pop. un petit peu résulte sans doute de la rencontre de un peu et de un petit.

From the point of view of etymology it seems to be true that "un petit peu" is a tautology, since "un petit" meant "peu" ("concurrencé par « un petit »"). From the point of view of present day meaning it is a set phrase ans so there is no logical ground for speaking of tautology.

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    This second quote is very hard to read with all these abbreviations, and I'm a French native, it must be a nightmare for the French learners. I think you can just remove it, it doesn't add any value. Commented Aug 7, 2023 at 15:05
  • @A.L Pour votre information, cette citation est la clé de ma conclusion qu'un pléonasme existe du point de vue de l'étymologie de ce terme; il n'est pas difficile de se reporter à la fin de la citation; la citation a été recopiée entièrement pour fournir au lecteur averti tout ce qui pourrait l'intéresser. D'ailleurs il n'y a que des abréviations standard, et nous sommes là pour apprendre : c'est en forgeant qu'on devient forgeron.
    – LPH
    Commented Aug 7, 2023 at 21:08
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    @A.L Indeed, and most of the quote (its etymological information) contributes nothing to the point. But it must be said that this site isn't explicitly aimed at French learners.
    – Luke Sawczak
    Commented Aug 8, 2023 at 20:02
  • no fucking clue what that wall of french is saying, but I appreciate you quoting from a legit source. seriously. I may not get it, but posterity might. Commented Sep 23, 2023 at 19:22

It may be perceived as "tautological", "redundant", or be a pleonasm, but nevertheless it is used everyday, as well as un peu.

Un petit peu is maybe slightly less than un peu. I would compare it to English expressions such as a little bit, a teeny bit or a wee bit which you could say are "tautological", but which are nevertheless commonly used.

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    More specifically (and aptly), this type of expression is called a pleonasm.
    – Luke Sawczak
    Commented Aug 7, 2023 at 4:12
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    @LukeSawczak And French is no stranger to them. See, for example, the etymology of loup-garou or how au jour d'aujourd'hui crops up in day-to-day speech.
    – ssokolow
    Commented Aug 7, 2023 at 5:53
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    I'm not so sure it's inherently a tautology, given that "peu" (and "bit") are defined as a subset of the whole, but do not inherently define a specific size (relative to the whole, in the same sense that e.g. "un quart" ("a quarter") does). Therefore, if there are different possible sizes for "un peu" (or "a bit"), it's relevant that you're able to distinguish the smaller ones from the bigger ones.
    – Flater
    Commented Aug 7, 2023 at 6:00
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    @LukeSawczak Other ones that come to mind: "monter en haut" and "descendre en bas". Both are frequently used.
    – Bruno
    Commented Aug 7, 2023 at 9:28
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    Petit and peu do not have the same meaning. Toto's answer is correct. Commented Aug 7, 2023 at 10:14

I would say it's like:

A little bit

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    It may be worth adding that "un tout petit peu" is the next step in a diminishing series: "un tout petit peu" is less than "un petit peu" which is less than "un peu".
    – traktor
    Commented Aug 7, 2023 at 4:48
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    We could also mention "un peu beaucoup", but that would be a little bit much. All these expressions effectively provide some nuance to the quantity.
    – Bruno
    Commented Aug 7, 2023 at 9:34
  • @traktor Yes, logically, but it's also all a bit fuzzy. It's not really a clear-cut, established gradation. Sometimes, one continues "un tout petit petit peu", but it's informal spoken language, not a rule by any stretch of the imagination.
    – Frank
    Commented Aug 8, 2023 at 0:03

It can be argued that peu is a relative quantity; what is peu for one is not peu for another (just look at all the billionnaires around you).

Adding petit brings it nearer to repetitive emphasis and may - it is all about context - make it understanble as "really" small quantity. A "little bit" is an adequate English equivalent but rhetorically speaking, a bit can be seen as a specific fraction or fragment of something specific, whereas peu is more of a notion, and hence relative.

The proverbial "génie populaire" has understood this before all the rhetoricians - and doesn't care much about the latters' opinion.

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