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Lex maniac

Investigating changes in American English vocabulary over the last 40 years


(1990’s | athletese | “mulligan,” “redo”)

This week’s expression probably arose among athletes, or sportswriters, and it is closely related to “mulligan” (according to one lexicographer, an equivalent term was “shapiro”), a golf term that referred to other players agreeing to let one of the foursome have another tee shot after a poor drive, particularly on the first hole. Needless to say, mulligans occur only in friendly games — an on-the-spot handicap that allows a player to avoid falling too far behind too early. I’m not a golfer, but I believe the word could be used to cover different shots and situations now. “Mulligan” is a little older than “do-over,” but not a lot; the first citation in Lighter dates from 1949, and it doesn’t seem to have penetrated other fields for at least thirty years after that. “Do-over” followed a similar historical pattern, but more condensed. I found a few instances in the late eighties, all in sports talk; by the mid-nineties, political and financial journalists were using it without hesitation. Today it is quite common, used all over the language, and available as an adjective.

There is an important distinction between “do-over” and “mulligan.” Mulligans are casual — a quick, informal consensus reached within a group of peers. “Do-overs” are decreed by a higher power, such as the referee or a government official. In the earliest instances I found, the purpose of a do-over was righting a wrong. The previous play, or the outcome of a competition, was nullified because one side’s rights were taken away somehow, or because a sudden change of condition resulted in an unfair advantage that tainted the result. It was up to the officials to determine what level of injustice or mishap required a do-over. While this sense has remained, the word need not suggest a fundamental injustice any more. Sometimes it’s intended to correct a flaw or problem created by previous action, and sometimes it tries to recast an unwanted, as opposed to an unfair, situation. A recent example: Stephen Colbert offered Bill Clinton another chance to address questions about his dalliance with Monica Lewinsky after he botched an earlier one. While Colbert used the word “do-over” to describe the offer, it was really a mulligan. In effect Colbert was saying, “We’re all friends here, Bill; take another whack at it and we won’t count the first one.”

I don’t recall using or hearing “do-over” (does it have anything to do with “make-over”?) on seventies sandlots, but one writer suggested it originates in children’s games, where often the easiest solution to a problem on the field is just to expunge the previous play and do it over again. I think in such cases we said “Doesn’t count; do it over,” or possibly “replay it,” but I don’t have any clear recollection. Maybe simply “do over!,” easily recast as a noun and any other part of speech you want. There’s something innocent about a do-over in its pure form, a childlike faith that you can remake the past. But in the real world, that faith leaves out too many complexities, which leaves it vulnerable. It will fade and even dissolve if the arbiters decide to grant do-overs based on one side’s advantage rather than uphold fundamental fairness.


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