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The meaning and origin of the expression: To mince words

To mince words

What's the meaning of the phrase 'To mince words'?

To mince words is to moderate one's language, to keep within the bounds of what is prudent or polite. Minced words are usually referred to in the negative 'do not mince your words'.

What's the origin of the phrase 'To mince words'?

It's easy to imagine that mincing one's words derives as an allusion to chopping up words to make them more palatable. That culinary meaning of mince is well established in the language and dates back as far as the 14th century, An example is found in Curye on Inglysch, 1381:

Nym onyons & mynce hem smale & fry hem in oyle.
[Pick up some onions and chop them into small pieces and fry them in oil.]

Mince wordsThat's not the meaning of 'mince' in mince words however. Nor is mince words a reference to the affectedly 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 20th century. Not that mincing is a new thing - that is also an old word and was put into in print 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 actual meaning of mince that we need is one that 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 this in Henry V..:

I know no wayes to mince it in loue, but directly to say, I loue you.

and in Antony & Cleopatra:

Speake to me home, Mince not the generall tongue, name Cleopatra as she is call'd in Rome.

For the first use in print of 'mince words' we need to wait until the 19th century. 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.

A particular form of minced words are minced oaths, which are a way of speaking about God without mentioning the name.

Gary Martin - the author of the website.

By Gary Martin

Gary Martin is a writer and researcher on the origins of phrases and the creator of the Phrase Finder website. Over the past 26 years more than 700 million of his pages have been downloaded by readers. He is one of the most popular and trusted sources of information on phrases and idioms.

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