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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


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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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Comments

  1. choronda says:

    Glad you fixed the spelling on the site as your email blast for “mealy-mouthed” showed the following: tending to say thing sin indirect, evasive, or deceptive ways.

  2. Noeleen says:

    I have always wondered what that meant! Seriously. I never understood.

    Thank you!

  3. In Gone With the Wind Scarlett calls Melanie a “pale-faced, mealy-mouthed ninny.” I believe this is an example of the older meaning, timid in speech. I hadn’t realized the newer definition. Good to know that politicians aren’t being called timid but rather evasive or deceptive. Makes much more sense!

    • I am 31 and I have only used the usage that is presented as the older of the two. I have considered it to describe reticence or inelegant speaking. I have seen it used in the more recent sense, but, frankly that doesn’t make much sense to me. How would possessing a “mealy mouth” make one more evasive in her discourse? I think I’ll avoid the term from now on.

  4. RightPaddock says:

    If one avoids saying something to prevent offence or pain then one is being _reticent_, not mealy mouthed

    Example : “Given Mary’s recent death, John was _reticent_ to raise the issue of her outstanding debt to him with her mother Louise.”

  5. Steve Chyborak says:

    I first learned of this word from a great linguist from the future! Scotty from the Enterprise!
    ” Aye. The haggis is in the fire for sure, but I’ll not lower my defenses on the word of that mealy-mouthed gentleman down below. Not until I know what happened to the captain!!! “

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