Luke Taylor

Grammar Grater®

with Luke Taylor

Episode 38: A Point Worth Debating

This week, we talked about a popular expression that sometimes gets confused. The topic was suggested to us by Beverly from Franklin, Tennessee, who wrote:
I loved your clarification of assure, ensure, insure. Now please do the same for moot and mute. I often hear "that is a mute point."
We were honored to have a special guest this week to help us sort it out. Michael Quinion is the author of the book Port Out Starboard Home and Other Language Myths, a volume we've referenced on this podcast on past occasions. He also maintains the Web site World Wide Words. Quinion joined us on Grammar Grater by phone from his office near Bristol, England.

Quinion says that moot point is a phrase that once had a well-understood meaning, but that meaning appears to have blurred. The term originally meant a matter that was uncertain, undecided, and therefore open to debate. Although that meaning remains, Quinion notes a newer understanding of the phrase. "We're seeing a shift in which this old sense is turning into something not worth debating, which is a curious change."

To explain the confusion, Quinion blames the word moot itself. "It's not one we really come across anywhere except in this one expression and it causes people problems," he says.

Quinion describes how the word moot originally had the same meaning as the word meet. He explains that before the Norman Conquest in 1066 and even in medieval times after the Norman Conquest, a moot referred specifically to an assembly of people.

There were many types of moots, the most notable being the witenagemot, which as an assembly of the witan or wise men, was the national council of Anglo-Saxon times. [Harry Potter fans note: JK Rowling adapted this word to create the Wizengamot, which in the popular books and films is the high court of wizarding law.]

Quinion says that all moots were meetings of some sort but they had a legislative or judicial function. Simply put, a moot was a place where people met in order to make decisions. "And so, by definition, a moot point was something that wasn't yet decided," Quinion says.

The shift in meaning, according to Quinion, has occurred within the last few decades and has accelerated in more recent years.

As to the cause of this shift, it might be possible to point a finger at ... lawyers. (We're just teasing you lawyers out there; please continue reading...) Quinion identifies another modern sense of moot that is well known in legal circles: a moot court, which is where hypothetical cases and academic points of law are argued by law students as a way of getting practice. "There's no practical outcome of these sessions," Quinion explains. "The cases are invented, they're academic discussions. So people seem to have assumed that a moot point means one of no importance. From there, we get the contemporary meaning of something that's not worth debating."

While all of that makes sense, we went back to Beverly's question; specifically, why do we sometimes hear people saying or writing mute point?

"That's a change which is something we call in the business, a popular etymology," Quinion says. He explains that because the word moot has mostly disappeared from popular use, people come to whatever conclusion they can about what the word ought to be. Quinion says that the nearest word to moot is mute, meaning silent or wordless or uncommunicative.

"Of course if you take moot point meaning something that is of no practical consideration and something not worth debating, then to be silent about it makes a great deal of sense," Quinion says. "A mute point is one that seems to be a sensible conclusion, so people are tending to use mute point instead of moot point."

Quinion acknowledges that mute point is incorrect, but adds that that has nothing to do with the way language is used. "If people think it makes sense," he says, "then it makes sense."

Source: Oxford Dictionary of Current English.

Music from this Episode: "Silence Kit" by Pavement; "I Know I Know I Know" by Tegan and Sara.

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