It's All Moot Anyway

It came up first on Says You!, that PBS radio game of "words and whimsy, bluff and bluster" that's always entertaining. When they asked their panelists to define the word moot, you just knew there had to be a catch. It means not worth talking about, right, a moot point being something that's already been decided? Not exactly. It turns out moot is a bit like inflammable -- it does and it doesn't, if you get my meaning. Yes, one definition of it is "of no legal significance," probably because it's already been decided. I always thought that's what a moot court was -- law students sitting around arguing cases that had already been decided, just for the practice. But it turns out that the word moot is also defined as "arguable or open to debate, as in 'that's a moot question.'"

It got worse when I turned to Merriam-Webster online for help. There it's considered perfectly fine to use moot as a verb meaning to bring up for discussion, i.e. "broach", but it's obsolete to use it in terms of a legal debate, though a moot court is still one in which law students argue hypothetical cases. Oh well. Glancing further down I see that Merriam-Webster thinks that the words moot and mute rhyme, which they clearly do not, so I now feel justified in throwing their opinion out all together. The baby and the bathwater approach works just fine for me, thank you. However, I still have two pretty contradictory definitions using moot as a adjective -- 1. Debatable or 2. Not worth debating because it's already settled or has no meaning.

By the way, the word moot comes from the Ole English gemot which was a meeting of freemen where various affairs and legal issues were discussed. That comes from the Germanic word motam, also meeting. So though the word-pure among us consider that moot actually means worthy of holding a meeting and discussing, it seems we in the US, at least, have taken the legal idea of a hypothetical debate, and turned moot into a word not worth talking about. Thus my frustration while watching Law and Order: SVU yesterday when I informed the actors, "Who cares who gets jurisdiction, you just proved he was insane at the time of the crime so it's a m--t point!" Help! I obviously need a new word for the second meaning of moot. Any suggestions? I suppose I could say hypothetical, but it just “ain’t got that swing,” you know?

Oh, and if you’re looking for some help rhyming, please don’t turn to Merriam-Webster. Moot and mute, indeed.

Read Well, Friend


Sheila Deeth said...

I asked my husband. He thinks it means it's tangential to what's being debated, so a moot point would be one that's interesting but doesn't contribute to the final conclusion.

I certainly wouldn't want it to rhyme with mute though!

Teri K said...

That's interesting. I didn't actually see that definition pop up anywhere, but it has a certain sense to it. He's not a lawyer, is he?
I'm pretty conservative when it comes to defining words, ie I try not to veer too far from the most accepted meanings. But at some point, it may be time to redefine moot to fit the more common usage.

Sheila Deeth said...

Mathematician, not lawyer. But mathematicians like all their definitions well nailed down.

Teri K said...

I know. My DH was an applied math major, though a computer geek in real life. In his brain, life was neat and organized and well-defined. In real life -- well -- another story!