From Hull AWE
Jump to: navigation, search

The adjective mutual (sometimes used substantively) can make pedants object. The root of the objection is a matter of the precise meaning of words. Mutual is said to mean 'reciprocal', that is 'two-way', e.g. when two individuals share mutual emotions, A feels towards B as B feels towards A.

  • The problem comes when mutual is used not to mean 'reciprocal' but 'shared', 'common'. This is said to be wrong. A frequently used example is that a man and woman may marry because of their mutual attraction, but when this leads to children, the parents do not have a mutual love of their children: they have love for their children in common, or 'a shared love'. Their offspring might be described as 'their mutual children'. The error is often defended by reference to Dickens' novel Our Mutual Friend, ignoring the fact that the phrase is first used (in chapter 9) by Mr Boffin, the 'Golden Dustman', himself an illiterate constantly seeking to improve his education.
OED 2003 comments, s.v. meaning 4. ("Held in common or shared between two or more parties"): "This use has in the past been censured as incorrect but it is nevertheless frequent. It has probably been used in preference to common on account of the ambiguity of the latter (which in many contexts could also mean ‘ordinary’, ‘mean’, or ‘vulgar’)."
OED cites the Southern Lit. Messenger of May 1836 as reporting "Several of the associations for interment which have lately been themselves ‘Mutual Burial Societies’. How can two individuals bury each other?". This highlights one of the potential pitfalls of using mutual.
  • The noun 'a mutual' labels one of the forms of shared financing in the world of business. It may be more common in the United States of America than the United Kingdom, where it is most commonly found in the field of insurance or assurance. The Cambridge Advanced Learner’s Dictionary & Thesaurus (on line; © Cambridge University Press) defines it as "a financial organization that is owned by its members, rather than by shareholders." It may help some to realize that a Building Society, where 'members' save money which is used to lend other members the money to buy a house, is a mutual organization: in the USA, it would be called a mutual tout court.