A Mute Point
Hello everyone. After a month-long hiatus, I am grateful to report that Mother Tongue Annoyances is back online. Initially I took MTA down temporarily because I transferred to a new Web host. Upon further reflection I decided that I wanted to undertake a completely different blogging project, did not want to devote the time and money to managing two blogs simultaneously, and ultimately chose to suspend MTA indefinitely. I made this decision abruptly and with no announcement to my readership; I am deeply sorry for this inconsideration.
Somewhat similiarly to the scorpion in Aesop's Fable "The Scorpion and the Frog," I have determined that it is indeed "in my nature" to continue sharing my research and ideas with regard to English language, non-verbal communication, public speaking, et cetera. Thus, MTA is officially reinstated (with a vengeance!), and I have amassed a sizable bucketload of interesting words and phrases to share with you. Stay tuned!
What we have on today's agenda is a fairly common malapropism in American English usage. It seems that there are quite a few people who mistake the phrase moot point for the unintentionally humorous mute point. For evidence of this unfortunate fact, let's turn to the Eggcorn Database, which is a Web site that chronicles these "spontaneous reshapings of known expressions." Check out the following "in the wild" example of mute point culled from a December 30, 2004 article in the Purcell Register:
Bringing in the new year is another mute point with me. The new year is going to occur whether I’m asleep, watching television or at a New Year’s Eve party. It might be fun to be with thousands of people in Oklahoma City bringing in the new year, but I opt to stay home and be safe. For 2005, have a safe and happy New Year with lots of good health and prosperity.
"So what exactly is the problem with this usage?" you may ask. Well, this is the deal, folks: In my opinion, the transposition of mute for moot can make the speaker or writer appear careless (at best) or ignorant (at worst) with regard to his or her knowledge nd application of English vocabulary. This, friends, will not do, at least here at MTA. Let's rectify this situation immediately.
The proper phrase under consideration is moot point. The adjective moot, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, means "open to argument, debatable; uncertain, doubtful; unable to be firmly resolved."
We do have a bit of a confusion to sort out, and this confusion makes the "mute point" mistake a bit easier to understand. You see, if the original definition of moot is "debatable," then why is it that the contemporary expression "moot point" means essentially the opposite; that is to say, a matter is irrelevant and unworthy of discussion or debate?
The OED provides a second definition for the adjectival use of moot; this reads "of a case, issue, et cetera: having no practical significance or relevance; abstract, academic."
Okay. Now we are striking closer to the proverbial bone. Why don't we turn to the origins of moot to see if we can attain some more clarity?
The word moot derives etymologically from the Old English word gemot, denoting "meeting." The sense here is that the meeting in question involves folks gathering together to discuss legal matters.
In point of fact, this meeting assembly is referred to directly when we use moot as a noun. Merriam-Webster Online defines the noun moot as "a deliberative assembly primarily for the administration of justice; especially one held by the freemen of an Anglo-Saxon community."
Ach! How can we sort out this moot usage issue? Well, for starters, I'll let you know that the OED states parenthetically that their second definition for moot (adjective) is "Now the usual sense in North America."
Next, we can have a look at this insightful bit from the World Wide Words Web site:
Moot point is one of those phrases that once had a firm and well-understood meaning, but no longer does. It was just as you say: a matter that was uncertain or undecided, so open to debate.
It comes from the same source as meet and originally had the same meaning. In England in medieval times it referred specifically to an assembly of people, in particular one that had some sort of judicial function, and was often spelled mot or mote. So you find references to the witenagemot (the assembly of the witan, the national council of Anglo-Saxon times), hundred-mote (where a hundred was an Anglo-Saxon administrative area, part of a county or shire), and many others. So something that was mooted was put up for discussion and decision at a meeting—by definition something not yet decided.
The confusion over the meaning of moot point is modern. It is a misunderstanding of another sense of moot for a discussion forum in which hypothetical cases are argued by law students for practice. Since there is no practical outcome of these sessions, and the cases are invented anyway, people seem to have assumed that a moot point means one of no importance. So we’ve seen a curious shift in which the sense of "open to debate" has become "not worth debating."
The Maven's Word of the Day Web site also has a nice write-up on the etymology and usage of moot. Have a great rest of the weekend.