Mealy-mouthed

For a person, to be mealy-mouthed is to tend to say things in indirect, evasive, or deceptive ways. A mealy-mouthed statement is one that is indirect or evasive. The word is usually meant negatively; when people speak in mealy-mouthed ways, we tend to think they’re afraid to speak plainly, are trying to trick us, or are avoiding saying what they really think for reasons of self-interest. The term comes up often in reference to politicians and their statements.

The word has a closely related, older sense, reticent or timid in speech. This is not quite so negative, but the word is now rarely used this way.

Mealy-mouthed is usually hyphenated. A one-word, unhyphenated form, mealymouthed, appears from time to time but has not caught on.

Origin

The origins of mealy-mouthed are not definitively established, though there are a few ideas out there. What we do know is that it came about around the middle 16th century and took several forms before the modern one was established to the exclusion of the others. There’s a good chance it descends from the German expression “Mehl im Maule behalten,” which literally means “to carry meal in the mouth” and figuratively means to speak indirectly. The word’s meaning could also have to do with the softness and pliability of meal (i.e., coarsely ground grains). In the older sense (reticent or timid), it might figuratively evoke how one sounds when speaking with a mouth full of meal.

Examples

People are always saying that politicians never talk straight, and that they’re mealy-mouthed and never say what they actually think. [Sacramento Bee]

The EU rattled the begging bowl again on Thursday morning, with a mealy-mouthed statement that it was “regrettable that unrelated issues” (meaning the embargo) were being involved. [The Foundry]

[T]here are several tiers or levels of apology. The lowest, most mealy-mouthed and actually infuriating, is: “I’m sorry you feel that way.” [Globe and Mail]

And so it’s no surprise that Mitt Romney … and even Barack Obama produced mealy mouthed statements on Friday that didn’t even include the word “gun”. [Daily Beast]

European politics was not the mealy-mouthed don’t-offend-anyone consensualist business of today. [Financial Times]

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