mutual

mutual
1.

• That done, our day of marriage shall be yours, One feast, one house, one mutual happiness. —Shakespeare, Two Gentlemen of Verona, v.iv.170–1.

Until the 19c, mutual was used with little difficulty in two main meanings: (1) that reflected in Valentine's words just quoted from Two Gentlemen, i.e. ‘common, shared by several’, and (2) another, slightly older, meaning defined as ‘experienced or done by each of two or more parties with reference to each other’, i.e. more or less equivalent to the much more awkward word reciprocal; this meaning is also found in Shakespeare: A contract of eternal bond of love, Confirmed by mutual joinder [= joining]

• of your hands —Twelfth Night, v.i.154–5.

Although the OED gives copious evidence for phrases of the type our mutual friend (first recorded in 1658, i.e. long before Dickens used it as a title), our mutual acquaintance, our mutual opinion, etc., the 19c grammarians decided on the basis largely of their Latin view of grammar and meaning that while ‘the mutual love of husband and wife’ is correct enough, ‘a mutual friend of both husband and wife’ is ‘sheer nonsense’ (Henry Alford, Dean of Canterbury, 1864). (How ‘sheer nonsense’ can be used of something that is readily understood itself makes no sense.)
2. The state of affairs now, in the early part of the 21c, is that most usage guides warn against the use of mutual to mean ‘common, shared’ when there is no element of reciprocal action or feeling, i.e. not just shared but acting in both directions (and usually involving no more than two parties). But meaning is not that containable, and is not always obligingly resident in individual words. Mutual is the kind of word that draws its meaning from its surroundings:

• On the whole even Marwan was pretty laissez-faire about a girl and a boy talking about subjects of mutual interest —Nigel Williams, 1993

(the interest may not be two-way but the talking is.) Furthermore, anyone who insists on using common instead of mutual is not living in the real world: common has acquired so much ancillary meaning from the other work it has to do that it will almost invariably change or weaken the sense. So the recommendation must be twofold: (1) use common or joint (or, often better, in common or jointly) if it fits without any of its other meanings getting in the way and has the force of meaning needed, especially in cases where it may be significant that the action is not two-way (people facing common problems), (2) otherwise use mutual, whether there is explicit reciprocal action or not:

• Wilde and Yeats reviewed each other's work with mutual regard —R. Ellmann, 1986

• In the aftermath of their mutual suffering, a former British commando and a German opera singer's daughter found love, marriage and a joint desire to explain the significance of the events they experienced —Independent, 2004.

3. The difference in usage between mutual and reciprocal was succinctly summed up by Fowler as follows: ‘Mutual regards the relation from both sides at once: the mutual hatred of A and B; never from one side only: not B's mutual hatred of A. Where mutual is correct, reciprocal would be so too: the reciprocal hatred of A and B; but mutual is usually preferred when it is possible. Reciprocal can also be applied to the second party's share alone: B's reciprocal hatred of A. Reciprocal is therefore often useful to supply the deficiencies of mutual.’

Modern English usage. 2014.

Synonyms:

Look at other dictionaries:

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