Some French words, known as ‘faux amis’ (false friends) are annoyingly unhelpful to those learning the language, because they look like English words but mean something completely different.
One of them is “mince” – on paper it looks like it should refer to the kind of chopped beef that goes into your spaghetti Bolognese, but in fact it has a few very different uses, none of them even vaguely meat-related.
The most common employment of “mince” – pronounced ‘mahse’ in French without saying the hard ‘n’ – is when describing someone’s weight. It means slim or slender: “Elle est devenue très mince” (She has got very thin).
Pass any French pharmacie – not difficult as there seems to be one every 50 metres – and you will very likely see a promotional poster for the latest ‘minceur’ (slimming) cream or diet plan.
However, there is another meaning of mince that they don’t teach you at school, but which is very handy. The French use the word all the time to express despair or irritation without using a swear word (gros mot). A good English equivalent might be “Oh, sugar!”
You will often hear it with “alors” added after, for added impact (“mince, alors!’’). This can also imply disappointment or surprise – in instances where we might say “Oh, blimey!”, for example.
Another way to express such emotions is to say “bon sang!”, which is a deity-free abbreviation of “bon sang de Dieu” (we would say “for God’s sake” or “for Pete’s sake”). This phrase originated with the blasphemous “par le sang de Dieu!” (by the blood of God), frowned upon by nobles and clergy of the Ancien Régime.