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Grab a glass of mulled wine and mull this one over

Dec 17, 2017

If you're someone who likes to mull things over, consider this question our holiday gift to you.

When you mull something over, must "over" always be part of the equation? Or can you leave it out and simply mull something?

Take a second to mull that over.


This topic came to us by way of an email from one of Professor Anne Curzan's colleagues, who sent Curzan the following sentence from Politico:

"Trump Administration officials are mulling an executive order that would instruct federal agencies to review low-income assistance programs."

The colleague says that she can't say "mull" without also including "over." She wants to know why people are now just mulling things instead. 

This is an example of what linguists call the recency illusion. Basically, someone thinks, "I've just noticed this, therefore it must be new."

As it turns out, there's nothing new about mulling things.

"Mull" in the sense of "ponder" only goes back to the late 19th century. In the Oxford English Dictionary, the first example of mulling over a problem is from 1884. The first example of simply mulling something is from 1873.

In other words, these two usages got started right around the same time.

In 1996, William Safire wrote about this issue in the New York Times Magazine. Like Curzan's colleague, he also thought that it must be "mull over." Safire called "mull" on its own "the naked mull," and was convinced it had to be a new phenomenon.

Safire actually sent his concerns to Frederick Mich, who was then the editor at Merriam Webster Dictionaries. Mish said that he too preferred "mull over." However, once he checked his database, Mish discovered that the usage frequency between the two is just about equal.

What about you? Can you mull something or must you always mull it over? Let us know at rkruth@umich.edu or acurzan@umich.edu.

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