Our Mutual Friend

Just to show that an evening spent with H W Fowler’s Modern English Usage can be dangerous, I am now going to spend a little time with the word mutual. Because I am a product of the United States where the only things that really matter are commodities, my first and most profound connection to this word is the Mutual of Omaha ad song, so familiar to viewers of Wild Kingdom:

Mutual of Omaha is people
You can count on when the going’s rough

Through force of will and years spent doing such uncool things as spending evenings with Fowler, I have a second, though less powerful, connection to the word: Charles DickensOur Mutual Friend. This is a more important connection, because I find more occasions to use “mutual” in a sentence than to break into a rendition of the Mutual of Omaha song.

I dare say that I learned everything I knew about how to use “mutual” in a sentence from Dickens’ title alone—until last night. What I found out last night was that using the word in this way is incorrect. And it isn’t just Fowler (dead almost 80 years) who says so. Only 58% of the most recent Usage Panel think that the construction “our mutual friend” is correct—a majority, but not a large one.

So what is the big deal? Let me quote Fowler:

The essence of its meaning is that it involves the relation x is or does to y as y to x, and not the relation x is as y to x, and not the relation x is or does to x as y to z.

This is, of course, useless; it sounds like a children’s rhyme. What he means is that mutual concerns two parties to each other and not two parties to a third. Thus, “They shared a mutual attraction” is okay; “Our mutual friend” is not.

The question obviously comes to mind: if Dickens uses “mutual” in this way, can it be all that wrong? It turns out that this use of the word was already quite common long before 1865, when Dickens wrote it. So we are talking some 200 years of this being common usage.

I think we should all make friends with this usage. Then it can be our mutual friend.