October 17th is National Mulligan Day.
The word mulligan has a few meanings, including referring to explosives and a humble stew made of whatever's left in the fridge. But Mulligan Day celebrates the meaning of the word associated with golf. In the sport, a mulligan is an unwritten rule that allows a player to take a shot again without the stroke counting against their score. In other words, a mulligan is a do-over.
There are a few different legends surrounding the origins of golf's second-chance. One version from the 1920s attributes it to a prominent amateur golfer who had a terrible shot on the first hole of the round. On impulse, he teed up and tried again. When his bewildered buddies asked for an explanation, he told them that his hands were bothering from gripping the steering wheel on the roadster that he drove the foursome to the course in. Mind you, this was the 1920s, when roads were unpaved and cars were not comfortable. The golfer felt he should get another shot. His friends allowed it, and the rest is history. That man's name? David Bernard Mulligan.
The surname Mulligan comes from Old Irish maelecan, from mael, "bald." Mael is combined with two diminutives here, which signify affection or small stature. The entire word, then, means “little bald one”, probably a reference to a monk and his tonsure, the shaven spot on his head.
Back to the mulligan used in golf. In professional golf a do-over is not allowed, but in friendly rounds it's up to the players. A mulligan is granted in the spirit of camaraderie, and this small act of generosity comes with the expectation that it will be reciprocated.
Whether or not you play golf, getting a second chance — without anything being held against you — is a very appealing idea. Maybe that's why the concept of a mulligan has taken hold in everyday life.
We like the idea so much that we thought we'd explore the language of getting another shot at getting things right.
A mulligan is granted when someone is unhappy with some result. The etymology of the word result echoes the idea of the second chance. Result comes from the classical Latin past participle resilirem, "to rebound." Rebounding literally means "to bounce back." Metaphorically speaking, it is the essence of the mulligan — a chance to give it another go.
Another relevant English word from the Latin root resilirem is resilience. Resilience is about toughness, about not letting obstacles or setbacks get you down. Resilience is the fortitude to keep going. Resilience is the ability to be strong enough to see something through to the end, and to know that if you do make a mistake, and get your chance for a mulligan, you will not let that opportunity pass you by.
To regret means "to look back with sorrowful longing." Mulligans are essentially a chance to cancel out regret. Taking a do-over, hopefully with a better outcome the second time, can almost magically erase feelings of regret.
The Latin word repetere consists of re- for "again," and petere "to go to, attack, strive after, ask for, beseech." The origins of the word repeat connote the sense of longing for another try. Striving for something and falling short is why we need second chances in the first place.
Mulligans are an opportunity to rectify situations gone wrong. Rectify is from the late Latin rectificare, "make right or straight." If you are taking a mulligan, you have some straightening out to do. Rectifying a situation is ultimately what the fantasy of time travel is all about, where someone gets to prevent an event from causing all sorts of problems in the future. If you think about it, when Marty McFly powers up the flux capacitor and flies gets transported back in time in a tricked out DeLorean in the classic movie Back to the Future so he can make sure his parents end up together, what he's really doing is taking mulligan.
By asking your friends let you make up for a previous mistake, you are seeking a form of redemption. You want to wipe the slate clean and try again. Redemption means "deliverance from sin," although golf mulligans don't quite rise to that level of seriousness.
Mulligan Day is a great excuse to celebrate second chances, either on the golf course or off. Taking a mulligan mean that we are willing to try again, and it means that we have friends who are generous enough to grant us another shot. Happy Do-over Day!
Adam Cooper studied linguistics at Brandeis University and The University of Chicago. Since 2010, he has been working with The Endangered Language Alliance in New York City on documentation and preservation projects.Click here to read other articles by Adam Cooper
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