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Lex maniac

Investigating changes in American English vocabulary over the last 35 years


your mileage may vary

(late 1990′s | advertese? computerese? | “no guarantees,” “you may not get the same results,” “you may have a different opinion”)

I am just old enough to remember gas lines and the energy crisis. Before then, nobody cared much about gas mileage, and therefore this phrase could not have been born. When you can fill your tank for five bucks, energy efficiency is not much of a concern. But by the late seventies, everyone wanted to know the MPG of the latest model, and we had to learn the difference between city and highway mileage. And with all the new statistics came the necessity of noting that there’s no guarantee that you’ll actually get 30 mpg highway in your daily driving life, or anything close to it. Thence sprang a new expression, which quickly became standard in car advertisements as in government reports. The more prosaic phrase, to which this one is closely related, is “(Actual) results may vary,” which may also be used fancifully.

The point of the expression was, we tested the car under certain assumptions and conditions, and these are the numbers we got. You probably won’t do so well, and it’s not our problem if you don’t. “Your mileage may vary” is one of the classic disclaimers. The phrase always invokes a single statistical, theoretically empirical standard, whether it was determined by the manufacturer or the watchdog.

It doesn’t seem to have eased into non-automotive use for another ten years or so. By the late eighties, it was starting to creep into other contexts, particularly computer journalism. It was common in racier circles by the mid-nineties. Texas Monthly (Feb. 1995) glossed it as “what works for me may not work for you.” By 2000, it could be used to talk about investment strategies, or the effectiveness of prescription drugs — it wasn’t about only cars or computers any more. More recently, it has become looser and sometimes means little more than “we may disagree,” used in reference to matters of opinion, as in this recent example from the Off the Kuff sports blog: “I’d rather identify and be identified with something small and independent than something big and corporate. Obviously, your mileage may vary.” There is no gesture at a numerical standard here; it’s purely a matter of personal preference. The older use still predominates, I would say, but maybe the spread will continue.

This phrase was born of the auto industry, but its metaphorical angle came to us through computer journalism. It was used regularly in evaluating software as early as the late eighties, and it was often cited as an early example of an e-mail or newsgroup abbreviation (yes, even before texting). “YMMV” turned up in guides to internet slang circa 1995 along with “FAQ,” “LOL,” or “IMHO.” It doesn’t seem to have lasted as well as these others. But in its day, it had that brand spanking new ultra-modern sound, a phrase liberated from stodgy automotive roots to be adopted by the darlings of the future. Only later did it become more comfortable among the rest of us.

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