A moot point

The word “moot” came up in unrelated conversations twice in the past few days. This might be so far outside the normal number of times that the word is used in everyday speech as to suggest a quantum anomaly.

In the first case, someone I was disagreeing with, while debating some topic or other, said “.. and in any case your argument is moot.” Basically meaning “You are talking shit.” I argued the toss about this being a misuse of the word moot which, as far as I am concerned, means “debatable.” I repeated some half-remembered schoolroom etymology stuff about the word coming from Anglo-Saxon council meetings. He said I’d made it up and that moot obviously meant “mistaken”. I curled my lip (metaphorically) at what I saw as an almost willful misunderstanding of the word.

In the context of the “smoking outside in the rain and wind” breaks – which allow smokers to add pneumonia to the list of potential smoking health hazards, but which bring the lesser consolation of time to discuss random things – the discussion turned to words.

Someone said “Do you know what word really bugs me? Moot. I think I know what it means and I probably don’t” (Hmm, welcome to my world.)

Me: “Yes, me too. I think I know but I am starting to suspect that I don’t. What do you think it means?”

Him: “I think it means salient.”

Me: “Oh shit, that’s three definitions, now. I’m pretty sure it doesn’t mean salient. I think it means something to be debated.”

Here, I inserted the Second Lesson from the Book of Etymology, verse 19. You don’t want to hear it again.

(Argh, I’m starting to empathise with fundies. I realise that I’m repeating “facts” that I think that I remember having learned at school – just taking it on childlike faith that the facts are true and correctly recalled. If only my teachers had realised that I was so receptive, they could have apparently turned my mind permanently to any of their pet causes.)

Him: “To the book depository! We have to look on Wiktionary. It’s the best online dictionary cos it doesn’t have adverts.” (This is true.)

Wiktionary gives three definitions.
What a relief to find that, at Number 1- with a bullet – there is mine, backed by the same etymology, even. W00t.

(UK, or US dated) Subject to discussion (originally at a moot); arguable, debatable, unsolved or impossible to solve.

But wait. “dated.” Bah. My fashion sense is humbled. In fact, my definition is not just “so last year” but it’s “so last century-and-a-half-ago.” The most recent example of its use is from 1851.

Number 2 is

Having no practical impact or relevance.
That point may make for a good discussion, but it is moot.

So that’s the hip-and-happening meaning. Which is quite close to the usage I was first disputing – mooting, even, in the old sense. (OK, I was condescendingly denying it altogether.)

Although, it could best be described as “not salient” then. Which put only my workmate in the mistaken camp, although he was close enough, except for mixing up salient and unsalient (if there were such a word.) And salient is such a wonderful word in itself. It sounds even better than moot.

Wiktionary definition Number 3 is somewhere between Number 1 and Number 2:

Being an exercise of thought; academic.

That’s more or less what I thought it meant but, with the extra implications of number 2 – that it’s just messing about with ideas for the joy of it, to no practical effect.

Bit like this, really.

3 thoughts on “A moot point

  1. Wikitonary is far from an authoritative source, but I suppose the purpose of language is to convey meaning to others – so a word really means what ever your audience think it means.

    Add this to the mix of madness: http://www.google.co.uk/search?q=define%3Amoot – which says it means: “of no legal significance (as having been previously decided)”.

  2. I was just thinking the same thing – that people don’t know what moot means and that they misuse it. I was taught it meant debatable. In dictionary.com definitions 1 and 2 are almost contradictory – it’s moot because it’s debatable, and it’s moot because it’s not debatable – it’s meaningless.

    It’s a strange word.

  3. One of the things I like about it, is about 75% of the people who use it, dont actually know what it means 🙂

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