Wednesday, November 01, 2006

moot

Someone some time ago asked about moot. This is a real source of miscommunication in BrE and AmE, as it has opposite meanings when used as an adjective, as in the phrase a moot point.

My first experiences of this word were in relation to moot court scenes in The Paper Chase (that [AmE] show/[BrE] programme was one of the early influences leading to my academic career). (Moot court is a trial practice exercise.) Then there was a sketch on Saturday Night Live that has stuck in my mind for 22 years now (I can't believe that I'm old enough to type that). In it, Jesse Jackson (the guest host, who was running for president at the time) was the host of a game show. He'd ask contestant a question, and when s/he tried to answer it, he'd interrupt and say "The question is moot!" and then he'd embark on a diatribe about how it doesn't matter when Halley's Comet will appear (or whatever the question was about), because the Reagan administration is going to get us all killed in a nuclear war (etc.). You can see a video of it here.

As that example demonstrates, moot in North America is affected by its American legal sense:
An issue presenting no real controversy.
Moot refers to a subject for academic argument. It is an abstract question that does not arise from existing facts or rights. --Thomson-Gale Legal Dictionary (US)
You can see how this relates to the moot court experience--the exercise is academic and will have no real effect on the world. Meanwhile, in BrE, moot retains the sense 'debatable'. So, in BrE a moot point is one that can/should be debated, while in AmE it's one that isn't worth debating because the issue is already decided or out of our control.

The American Heritage Dictionary gives some context for this meaning variation in the following Usage Note:
The adjective moot is originally a legal term going back to the mid-16th century. It derives from the noun moot, in its sense of a hypothetical case argued as an exercise by law students. Consequently, a moot question is one that is arguable or open to debate. But in the mid-19th century people also began to look at the hypothetical side of moot as its essential meaning, and they started to use the word to mean “of no significance or relevance.” Thus, a moot point, however debatable, is one that has no practical value. A number of critics have objected to this use, but 59 percent of the Usage Panel accepts it in the sentence The nominee himself chastised the White House for failing to do more to support him, but his concerns became moot when a number of Republicans announced that they, too, would oppose the nomination. When using moot one should be sure that the context makes clear which sense is meant.
Whether there's anything that I can add to that is a moot point!

12 comments:

Rebecca said...

I'd use it in the American sense, but that might be because I'm young. Too many of my friends pronounce it 'mute', too, like 'myute'.

Anonymous said...

I'd also use it in the American sense despite being Scottish...and not particularly young ;)

lynneguist said...

Googling the term on .uk only sites, one indeed finds a lot of AmE-style usage, but also a lot of English usage sources that say that the meaning of moot is 'debatable, open to argument'.

I wouldn't have necessarily noticed it if BrE speakers had used the AmE-style meaning, because it wouldn't have jarred (it might now!). But I have two colleagues who use it in the BrE sense--one such recent usage was the inspiration for writing about it today!

Doug Sundseth said...

Is the verb form of "moot" more used on one side of the Atlantic than the other? I've heard it rarely enough that I can't be sure.

ally said...

I'd also use it in the American way. I have never heard anyone use it any other way, as far as I've noticed!
'Tis different for the verb though, yes?

lynneguist said...

I don't have the means at the moment to say whether the verb is used more in one place than the other--it's a low-frequency word in both. But it means the same thing in both: 'to raise for discussion'.

Paul Danon said...

Yeah; I hear mute point sometimes. Love it. It's up there with damp squid and he's just a prawn in their game.

marek said...

I was brought up with the thought that the derivation was from the even older, Anglo-Saxon, use of moot in the sense of a place of meetings and therefore of decisions and judgments
(something I was taught on childhood visits to Ightham Mote, a mediaeval manor house in Kent, where the Mote comes from moot rather than moat, though it has one of those too).
That supports the BrE usage which is described here - but my sense is that it has become one of those words such as "begging the question" and "raincheck" (in its frequent BrE misuse) where the underlying meaning has been completely lost.

Jed said...

Like Marek said... "use of moot in the sense of a place of meetings" I also am familiar with the use of 'moot' to refer to a regular, usually open and advertised, gatherings of a like-minded people to discuss issues, make plans, or just socialise.

Doris said...

Another one here with the knowledge of moot as a meeting place from Old English, or Saxon times - in my case from having grown up with a Moot Hall in the nearest town. I imagine that the moot legal term came from long and windy discussions at such places being used as example? Anyhow the web address to the 15th century Moot Hall that I know well is http://www.themoothall.co.uk/index.php

Albert Herring said...

From a BrE perspective I'd have said that the commonest meaning I have come across outside law school was somewhere between the two: not exactly "something that needs debating", but "something which, while possibly pertinent, is not addressed or resolved by the discussion in hand". Genreally used of an unquestioned assumption on which a discourse is based. Does that sound right?

David Crosbie said...

The OED asserts that a moot point was originally something debated at a a moot as Marek, Jed and Doris supposed.

The slight extension of this sense — 'open to debate' — has persisted in British English since the seventeenth century. In writing, that is; it may be much older. Only in North America has that sense been supplanted by that other very different sense.

I've never heard or read Albert Herring's in-between sense. Certainly it isn't included in the OED. Perhaps this is a new sense among people who are familiar with both British and American uses and want to reconcile them.