A new day, a new thing

My goal to learn something new every day

Day 80: Mileage

The topic in one of my classes today was transportation, and to start off the class, students had a small list of questions to discuss about their preferences for cars, whether they could drive etc. Two students (one male, one female) sitting near me were discussing together and got on to a question about the most important things they’d look for when buying a new car. The female student was trying to say that she wanted a car that would be cheap to run, i.e. it didn’t use too much fuel, but she couldn’t find the words. The male student offered the term mileage and then turned to me to check if that was right.

I told him that I didn’t think so, and that’s not how I’d use mileage. “Are you sure?” He asked, “Is there a difference between American and British English?”. “Possibly”, I told him. But at the time I wasn’t so sure. I explained how I’d usually use the word to mean that total amount of distance travelled in a cars lifetime. I said if I were to say the car has good mileage then we’d be talking about a second-hand car that hadn’t travelled too far considering its age.

Image courtesy of Kyle May on Flickr

Image courtesy of Kyle May on Flickr

I suggested the phrase that he was looking for was fuel economy and that we can measure this in miles per gallon (mpg). However, as I have done many times before, I said I’d double check after the class and get back to him. And as has happened many times before, I learned something new today.

My first source was Wikipedia, which defines mileage as “literally a distance travelled in miles”. Beneath the definition is a brief section on motor vehicles, which says:

  • Fuel economy in automobiles, typically in miles per gallon (mpg) (US)
  • Distance travelled, typically as measured by an odometer (UK)

Looks like my student was correct. It is a difference between the British and American versions. I had a look on a couple of other dictionary websites to double and triple check. Dictionary.com says:

1. the aggregate number of miles traveled over in a given time.
2. length, extent, or distance in miles.
3. the number of miles or the average distance that a vehicle can travel on a specified quantity of fuel:
the car gets good mileage.

Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary says:

1. [uncountable, countable, usually singular] the distance that a vehicle has travelled, measured in miles

  • My annual mileage is about 10 000.
  • a used car with one owner and a low mileage
  • The car rental included unlimited mileage, but not fuel.
  • I get a mileage allowance if I use my car for work (= an amount of money paid for each mile I travel).

2. [uncountable, countable] the number of miles that a vehicle can travel using a particular amount of fuel

  • If you drive carefully you can get better mileage from your car.

Merriam-Webster says:

distance in miles

distance traveled in miles by a vehicle

the average number of miles a vehicle will travel on a gallon of gasoline

So far, so good! Interestingly, however, OxfordDictionaries.com, both the British and US versions, say just this:

[MASS NOUN]
1 A number of miles travelled or covered:
the car is in good condition, considering its mileage

1.1 [USUALLY AS MODIFIER] Travelling expenses paid according to the number of miles travelled:
the mileage rate will be 30p per mile

2 informal Actual or potential benefit or use to be derived from a situation or event:
he was getting a lot of mileage out of the mix-up

With no mention of the use for fuel economy. But it appears that most sources do suggest both definitions. One thing that I did notice though, with the exception of the Wikipedia article, is that none of the dictionaries seem to draw attention to the difference between American and British English usages. I wonder whether any fellow Brits would ever use mileage to mean fuel economy, and did you even know it had that meaning? Is it just me who was ignorant to it? And what about Americans, would you use mileage for the total distance travelled too as well as to describe the fuel economy of a car?

It also helps to explain for me the phrase Your milage may vary (YMMV), which, up until now, I’d considered quite strange and couldn’t quite figure out how it came to have the meaning its acquired quite recently.

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This entry was posted on March 21, 2015 by in Language and tagged , .

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