We might still hear someone say “she doesn’t mince her words” but do we know what it means?
Anyone who knows me will affirm that I tend to say what’s on my mind, although I try to think before I speak and to be more tactful than I used to be.
My mother used to remark to me that I had “a neat turn of phrase”, and would occasionally comment to others that I didn’t mince my words. I always took the first observation as a compliment, although I’m not sure it was ever really meant that way. The second, though, always seemed to be rather a strange image because it made me think of minced meat or minced fruit.
Of course, “mince” is one of those words that has multiple meanings. It can mean to chop or grind something into very small pieces. It can mean to walk in small, affected, or dainty, steps. And, when it comes to words, it can mean to modify your language so as to not cause offence.
All of those meanings relate to the idea of making something smaller or diminishing in size. It’s easy to see how ‘mince’ is related to other words such as diminish, miniature, minute, and minimise.
The use of ‘mincing words’ to mean making them softer or more moderate goes as far back as the 1500s, and is a term used by Shakespeare himself.
To mince one’s words means to speak in an indirect or perhaps a diplomatic way rather than stating something directly or bluntly. To do so is to make what you say less of a stumbling block, easier to move past or step over, or even easier to digest.
Thus, to not mince one’s words means to speak without worrying about how the listener will feel or respond.
Well, okay. That might sound a little like me. Sometimes.
That has changed, though, as I have got a little older.
If I am at home, or comfortable with the company I am in, I still tend to express my thoughts freely. Elsewhere, though, I feel as though I do not feel that freedom. And there are many occasions on which I simply couldn’t be bothered. One cannot, as the saying goes, fix stupid.
These days, I often choose to simply remain silent when someone says or does something ridiculous, because there is no polite way to say what I am thinking. Thirty years’ experience as a teacher and a fair few years as an actor and performer have helped me refine my ability to keep my facial expression neutral, although I will admit that sometimes I just don’t bother. Some people should be thankful that the look on my face is all they get.
So, it seems I do sometimes mince my words. On other occasions, I mince them between my teeth and swallow them.