mince words

To “mince words” means to be anything but straightforward. It usually involves the use of euphemisms to keep within the bounds of what is considered prudent or polite. 

If you spend any time cooking, you might imagine that mincing one’s words means chopping up words to make them more palatable. That culinary meaning of mince dates back as far as the 1300s. An example is found in Curye on Inglysch, 1381: “Nym onyons & mynce hem smale & fry hem in oyle.” Translated into modern English, that means to chop onions into small pieces and fry in oil. 

The phrase certainly doesn’t have anything to do with the dainty short-stepping style of walking, known as mincing, that was often adopted by gay actors in British comedies in the latter half of the 1900s. Such mincing is an old word and was put into in print in 1562 in the children’s play Jack Juggler, although without the present-day camp overtones: “She minceth, she brideleth, she swimmeth to and fro.”

The meaning of “mince” in relation to words is less common, although just as old. To mince has, since the 1500s, meant to make light of, specifically to use polite language when making a criticism. Shakespeare used this in Henry V: “I know no wayes to mince it in loue, but directly to say, I loue you.”

“Mince words” was first seen in print in the 1800s. Benjamin Disraeli, who was a novelist as well as a politician, used it in his 1826 story Vivian Grey: “Your Lordship’s heart is very warm in the cause of a party, which, for I will not mince my words, has betrayed you.”

To me, being blunt is much more fun.

  One thought on “mince words

  1. March 8, 2020 at 9:09 pm

    Bluntness doesn’t produce mincing, whether you’re talking knives and onions or words. To us writers, words are ingredients. We process and blend them into our creations.

    Like

    • March 9, 2020 at 2:39 am

      That’s true! l wasn’t even thinking about knives when I said “blunt,” but I should have been. Yes, words are ingredients.

      Liked by 1 person

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