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What’s the Origin of ‘Run-of-the-Mill’?

By
Samantha Enslen, read by Mignon Fogarty,

How’s your day going? 

Awesome? Terrible? Or run-of-the-mill? 

If it’s the latter, you’re having an average day, with nothing special about it. Maybe we can add some excitement by exploring where this phrase came from.

Let’s start with the word mill. Mill originally meant a building equipped with machines that ground grain into flour. It was often run by power from water or wind.  

Over time, mill came to mean any place that produced materials. A sawmill, for example, that made boards, planks, or timber. A textile mill that made fabric.

What’s the run of the mill? It’s all the stuff that’s made by the mill before it’s been graded or checked for quality. The stuff could be good. Could be bad. Could be average. 

And that variability is reflected in price. An 1876 report to the governor of Tennessee described the state of manufacturing in Cog Hill, on Conesauga Creek. The rate for run-of-the-mill lumber was $10.00 per thousand board feet; the rate for choice lumber, $12.50.

The run of the mill was all the stuff made by the mill before it was graded or checked for quality. 

Today, run-of-the-mill doesn’t mean variable in quality; rather, it means average. Un-special. You might eat run-of-the-mill food at a cheap restaurant. Or see run-of-the-mill movies on late-night cable.

What you won’t do is describe these things as run of the mine or run of the kiln. These parallel phrases, also drawn from manufacturing, have fallen out of use. I guess they were just too run-of-the-mill.

So that’s your tidbit for today. Run-of-the-mill means average or ordinary.

Samantha Enslen runs Dragonfly Editorial. You can find her at dragonflyeditorial.com or @DragonflyEdit.

Sources

Ammer, Christine. Run of the mill. American Heritage Dictionary of Idioms, 2nd ed. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2013. 

Oxford English Dictionary, online edition. Oxford University Press. http://bit.ly/1O3I8R3 (subscription required, accessed May 5, 2016).

Image courtesy of Shutterstock

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