Are You Sure You Mean “Moot”?

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I just caught myself writing “the question is moot” meaning “the question is irrelevant or closed.” I immediately scrapped “moot” for a different adjective.

Why? Because I remembered an occasion on which my son, a journalist, ruined the word for me by explaining that I was using it incorrectly.

To me a “moot question” was a “closed question.” Discussion over, period. Apparently the opposite is true. A “moot question” is one that is arguable.

Here’s the first definition of moot as given in the OED:

1. Originally in Law, of a case, issue, etc.: proposed for discussion at a moot (MOOT n.1 4). Later also gen.: open to argument, debatable; uncertain, doubtful; unable to be firmly resolved. Freq. in moot case, [moot] point.

Now that I know this definition, I cannot bring myself to use the word moot in the sense with which it is commonly used in American English.

The OED acknowledges American usage in its second definition:

2. N. Amer. (orig. Law). Of a case, issue, etc.: having no practical significance or relevance; abstract, academic. Now the usual sense in North America.

I’m sorry to lose it, but since I’m writing for an international audience, the adjective moot is a word I now avoid.

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26 thoughts on “Are You Sure You Mean “Moot”?”

  1. I – a Brit – would understand, and even use, the American meaning of this word. In fact, I didn’t even know of its original British meaning(!)

  2. At this moment, the correct usage of the word moot is a moot point. 🙂 But I would say this, I would not avoid using this word altogether. But I am glad that you have pointed out the original meaning. Thanks,

  3. Peter,
    Thanks for raising (not begging) the question. Until your comment, I’d never given the expression any thought.

    I think I’ll just refer DWT readers to the Wikipedia article. It left me shaking my head.

    I’m happy to say that, unlke “moot,” this expression has never been part of my vocabulary so I don’t have to worry about misusing it.

  4. John on November 10th, 2007 1:21 pm At this moment, the correct usage of the word moot is a moot point. But I would say this, I would not avoid using this word altogether. But I am glad that you have pointed out the original meaning. Thanks,
    John. Thanks, now instead of At this moment I can use now, currently or presently. What logorrhea. Sounds a bit pompous.

  5. This is a fine (or moot?) example of an English word changing over time. If you research the word “gentleman”, it originally had nothing to do with manners… it was simply a man who owned land and had a family crest. He could have been a complete boor, as well as a gentleman…

  6. “Moot” seems to be one of those few words that can mean exact opposites — such as “sanction” and “citation.” In law, a “moot court” argues a question. As a lawyer, when writing appeals, I use it in the sense that “the court should not refuse to consider this issue; the question is not moot [closed] even though the plaintiff’s sentence has run out, as he wishes to clear his name. . . ” etc.

  7. I could be wrong but I think it’s just a case of a shifting understanding where people hearing that something is a moot point begin to understand is as something that can’t be determined or argued and the eventually becoming something that is agreed. What is agreed is that there is no agreement so, it is a moot point and to make that statement allows you to move on to other aspects of defining what can be argued to bring a conclusion. We could say, when you use moot you are basically saying let’s agree to disagree and call it a wash.

  8. From Answers.com;

    In American law, a matter is moot if further legal proceedings with regard to it can have no effect, or events have placed it beyond the reach of the law. Thereby the matter has been deprived of practical significance or rendered purely academic.

    So a moot question is one that is pointless…..i am English and use the word in that way and i am not ashamed 🙂

  9. Of course, when i say ‘pointless’ i mean that the answer to the question will have no practical impact because other circumstances have made the answer not worth getting…(i think)

  10. Actually, now that you bring it up, I have not used the word since learning its meaning. I can’t bring myself to even say it, which I frequently did before. Makes me wonder how many similar misconceptions are in my head. But I suppose that is one of the reasons I’ve been glued to this website since I found it a couple of days ago. I want to learn those things.

  11. Call me crazy, but I cannot see any significant difference between the English and American definitions. I had assumed that something moot was indiscernible as fact and therefore open to discussion, which makes it abstract and academic by nature. If it wasn’t moot then one could simply say “yes” or “no”,- it wouldn’t be open for discussion because the answer would be all to obvious.

    if someone agrees with me I will die happy.
    thank you.

  12. Escher, I do see a significant difference between the two definitions, however I feel my anecdotal experience with the word doesn’t completely fit with either definition.

    I always thought it means something similar to obsolete and have heard it used that way. An example would be if you were discussing what to make for dinner with your partner when a friend knocks on the door with pizza and wings. The point of what to make for dinner is then moot.

    I think this usage is closer to the second definition, but not fully in line with either.

  13. What has confused the original meaning of moot meaning ‘something debatable or arguable’ to ‘something pointless or not worth a discussion’ is the unfortunate transposition of the meaning of ‘mute’ (a silencing) since most people who use the term tend to say “that’s a mute point” or that’s a “mute question”. Hence the wrong use of words has led to a general acceptance of the wrong meaning. Consider the most crucial element of a debate — it must have a ‘Moot’, which is essentially, the topic to be argued or debated.

  14. My guess is that the movement in meaning came from an extensionf of the term as used in law. A moot court is one in which points are debated, but also one that is meaningless in the sense that it does not make any actual rulings or decide the outcome of real cases or contraveries. So moot comes to mean “irrelevant” or “not real” by extension. True, a moot was originally a meeting like a tribal council. Remember the Ent Moot in Tokien.

  15. Nearly all words have multiple definitions, and the allegedly “correct” one for moot is more an example of legal or academic jargon than a real definition that people use today.

    I say “people” because it isn’t restricted to America. People in the UK use it that way and so do people in Canada. I can only assume Australia is no exception, nor any other formal colony.

    But for the sake of argument, let’s pretend there really is only one correct way to use “moot.” The question of whether you should use “moot” to mean “irrelevant” depends on what you are writing, just like with “irony.”

    If you aren’t fluent in conversational English, as well as formal English, you’re not going to be a very effective writer. Pedantic, precise writing isn’t very useful outside of courtrooms, technical manuals, and arguments in comments sections.

    I can’t speak for anyone else, but I’m certainly not writing political pamphlets in my daily life.

  16. I have never heard anyone say, “mute point.” Where do people say such a thing? It seems silly and absurd to me, though I could perhaps, by some stretch of the imagination, see someone rationalizing the usage as being related to the idiom “falls on deaf ears” (as in the point is “mute” because it falls on deaf ears?). That’s the only reasoning that seems plausible to me. Then again, I’ll admit I used to say, “for all intensive purposes,” so I can’t judge too harshly.

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