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I gather that the phrase "your mileage may vary" basically means your experience may vary. But, in general use, the term "mileage" has two different senses, and both seem to be capable of being the one the phrase means :

  1. Mileage as a measure of fuel efficiency -- i.e. how much fuel a vehicle uses for specific number of miles it travels.
  2. Mileage as a measure of total miles a vehicle has traveled over its lifetime.

Both can possibly be the intended meaning of the term "mileage" in the phrase "your mileage may vary".
So which one is it ?

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    I don't know if it's fair to define a word by it's literal definition when used in an idiom. It's almost oxymoronic to define an idiom in a literal sense. – Tyler N Jul 20 '20 at 15:02
  • Unless the phrase is used in a sentence where its meaning is literal, then its meaning is figurative. Since it's figurative, it could apply to either sense—or both. It doesn't really matter, and it's probably impossible to say. It's certainly impossible to say in general. (A specific person might know what their intended analogy in a particular sentence—or, again, it might be irrelevant.) – Jason Bassford Jul 20 '20 at 15:05
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    No time to find sources, hence comment, not answer: AFAIK the origin of the phrase is car commercials which would quote some testing body's figures for miles per gallon, and then would say "your mileage may vary" as a kind of CYA move. Thus, the expression is clearly referring to your first definition, fuel efficiency. – Marthaª Jul 20 '20 at 15:10
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    Agreeing with @Marthaª . In the US, the EPA has a procedure for how to measure a car's mileage in the city and on the highway. These tests were run under laboratory conditions (there was neither city nor highway), quite different from what one would see driving under real conditions. I have heard the phrase when making claims about what kinds of investment returns, or when comparing a previous study with one that has not yet been undertaken. (That is to say, having nothing to do with car mileage, but rather with the notion of comparing theoretical measures with actual results.) – rajah9 Jul 20 '20 at 15:27
  • @Marthaª — No. it’s an answer, not a comment. As it says in the box, “use comments to ask for clarification or to suggest improvements”. Nor was it any way necessary as it had been pointed out that it was a duplicate question. – David Jul 20 '20 at 15:31
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Your mileage may vary fits your first definition, "Mileage as a measure of fuel efficiency."

In the US, the EPA has a procedure for how to estimate a car's mileage in the city and on the highway. These tests were run under laboratory conditions on a machine called a dynamometer.

Source

In the US, new cars are sold with the laboratory results on a sticker.

But the individual who purchases said car will drive in cities and on highways that are different than the laboratory conditions. S/he may also accellerate more quickly than the EPA lab procedure or run the air conditioner. This will change the individual's mileage compared to the lab results. Thus "Your mileage may vary" is a common warning that was voiced over in 1970s new car advertisements and is in the fine print today, and it refers to the fuel efficiency.

(It could not refer to the miles traveled over a lifetime, as it is employed for new cars, which are by definition low in mileage.)

Here is an image from a 2020 Nissan Maxima sales brochure.

Nissan Maxima The fine print (about two-thirds of the way through) says:

2020 EPA Fuel Economy Estimates 20/30/24 (City/Highway/Combined). Actual mileage may vary with driving conditions.

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    aah thanks ... perfect ! – mumtaz Jul 20 '20 at 16:03
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    Yes to the above answer (with an upvote). I would like to add on a personal note that I have been known to use the expression "your mileage may vary" in a metaphorical sense to apply to situations that have nothing to do with cars but with my own wisdom and experience. For example, "I find that mowing the yard in the morning is best, but your mileage may vary." – RobJarvis Jul 20 '20 at 18:35
  • Agreed, @RobJarvis. As I said in a comment on the main question, I have heard the phrase when making claims about investment returns, or when comparing a previous study with one that has not yet been undertaken. (That is to say, having nothing to do with car mileage, but rather with the notion of comparing theoretical measures with actual results.) – rajah9 Jul 20 '20 at 19:54
  • I added a link documenting your statement about new car ads. – David Jul 22 '20 at 10:21
  • @RobJarvis - It's an extremely common metaphor: the abbreviation YMMV has been in common use online for many years. – nnnnnn Jul 23 '20 at 13:57
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This is mainly an answer to a different question — ”When did the phrase switch from a literal to a figurative meaning?” — but by documenting it I do answer the question, so pause a second before downvoting me.

A Google Books ngram search for “mileage may vary” brings up a bimodal graph:

Mileage may vary ngram

The first portion, starting about 1970, peaking about 1980, and bottoming out in 1990 almost completely consists of literal usage in terms of miles per gallon, e.g.:

“Your mileage may vary due to how and where you drive, truck's condition, and optional equipment.” Popular Science, June 1978

In the second, later, peak one finds the term used mainly in the figurative sense mentioned by the poster. The first linked page for the period 1998-2011 includes books on

bed bugs:

“And in dealing with animals, the phrase your mileage may vary must be considered”

childcare:

“As with anything else kid-related, your mileage may vary!”

web programming:

“But your mileage may vary. If you view a Web page…”

and real estate marketing:

“Your mileage may vary, but not by much. If you rely on yourself to send out those letters…”

Shows how useful Google Books ngram can be. But then again, your mileage…

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As it turns out, at least according to Oxford, mileage has another (informal) definition.

mileage, noun

Actual or potential benefit from something.

I would say that this is the most accurate definition for this usage.

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    I'd be surprised if that definition of the word "mileage" didn't originate from the very idiom we're talking about. – Tanner Swett Jul 22 '20 at 17:11

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