Posts Tagged ‘Word Seeds’

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Word Seeds #1: “Moot”

September 30, 2008

debating moot points You’ve been arguing with your best friend for twenty minutes about whether Firefly deserved to be cancelled or whether it should have continued into a second season, when finally your friend throws up his or her hands and says, “Forget it. It’s a moot point, anyway.”

The understood meaning of the word ‘moot’ is that the subject is purely academic and that arguing about it will serve no further purpose. The argument is effectively closed; in this circumstance, Firefly has been cancelled, and discussing whether or not this was justified will not bring the show back.

This is the accepted common usage. However, even Dictionary.com‘s usage panel hardly agree on this; only 59 percent of the panel felt that the current contextual use of the word was acceptable. Why is that? Perhaps because the word originally meant something very different indeed.

The Anglo-Saxon mot referred to a meeting or assembly, and the term moot arose from its ashes as an adjective to describe something debatable or unresolved. The connotations of insignificance had not yet been attached to it; this happened when 16th century law jargon came to include the phrase ‘moot case.’ A moot case was a hypothetical law case that students would debate in order to sharpen their skills. It adhered to the original meaning of the word because it involved debate, but unlike your typical debate, the arguments presented in a moot case carried no relevance in the real world.

Should this be a case of Mistaken Identity? No, because if you tried to use the word moot in academic writing to mean both arguable and of practical value, you would certainly be criticized or looked down upon by your readers.

It’s amazing how the application of a word to describe a single circumstance, such as a hypothetical law case, can change the future of that word permanently. Should this word return to its original usage? Should we discard the modern meaning in favor of the original? The point is moot – and what I mean by that is completely up to you.

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