On 'Mutual Friends'
It was years ago that I first read in one manual of English usage or another that 'mutual friend' is a solecism. As is often the case, once I learned this I have never been able to forget it, despite the fact that the world around me goes on cheerfully speaking of 'mutual friends' so that the battle is probably lost. This was only a minor irritant until recently.
Every day, when I go to Facebook, I see a suggestions someone to add to my list of friends. Most of these are people I have never heard of, but who apparently are friends of friends. Facebook helpfully tells me how many common friends we have, but it always says, 'x mutual friends'. Thus a little error noticed occasionally has become a daily irritant. There is no salve I know for it, nor any hope of bringing about change. What I have seen of other attempts to change Facebook suggests saving my breath to cool my porrige.
Still, though I resoved to keep silent, the matter burns within, and I think perhaps that my few readers will indulge me for a moment.
Not long ago, I found a passage in one of Angela Thirkell's novels which sets out the facts about 'common friend' and 'mutual friend', a passage you might like to read. The conversation is between Miss Bunting, an elderly governess, and Gradka, a refugee; the time is towards the end of the Second World War; the place is in Trollope's fictional county of Barsetshire.
'"A common friend in good English, means a friend of two or more people," said Miss Bunting, wishing Gradka would go away but impelled by her life's training to give information where it was desired. "For instance, Dr. Dale is a friend of Sir Robert's and a friend of Admiral Palliser's. One could therefore say that he is their common friend."
'"Aha," said Gradka thoughtfully. "Which you ollso say mutual friend. It is synonym, yes?"
'"No, Gradka," said Miss Bunting roused like an old soldier by the distant trumpet. "We do not say mutual friend when we mean common friend. That our great author Charles Dickens uses the word in this way is a fact you may note, but not copy. He was a law to himself. A common feeling is a feeling about some person or subject, shared by two or more people. A mutual feeling is an identical feeling in each of two people about the other. There could be a mutual friendship between two people. A mutual friend is nonsense."'
~ Miss Bunting (NY: Knopff, 1946), p. 76.