Tuesday, 26 August 2014

Mute point or moot point?

The phrase moot point derives from the Old English word moot, which referred to a judicial assembly or court.  In the 16th century it applied to hypothetical cases that were used by law students as part of their training.  Despite falling out of favour in the early 20th century, the holding of moots, where such cases were debated, has been re-introduced into the Inns of Court and University Law Schools.  The phrase moot point derives directly from this usage, and so means a point that is doubtful, debatable and open to argument.  The first occurrence of the phrase recorded by the OED is from L. Humphrey’s Nobles or of Nobilitye (1563):That they be not forced to sue the lawe, wrapped with so infinite crickes and moot poyntes’. 
Because moot is not known outside legal circles, the phrase is often mistakenly reanalysed as mute point, although at present the number of correct uses appears to outweigh the erroneous ones.  The Oxford Corpus has 1253 instances of moot point and 31 of mute point.  There are just 5 examples of mute point on the BBC website.  So it seems as if the phrase moot point remains well established, and that the misspelling mute point is a minor variant, albeit one which sneaks into published journalism.  An article in the Daily Express in July 2013, discussing rumoured football transfers, suggests that ‘Whether Napoli’s interest is concrete or not now seems like a mute point’.  Those who make this mistake are harshly criticised by the twitterati.  One tweeter allows the error to speak for itself, laconically tweeting of the former baseball player, manager and now TV pundit: ‘Larry Bowa thinks it’s “mutepoint, not “moot” point. Of course he does.’
As with similar errors, those prone to the slip are often able to provide a rational justification for the form they prefer.  According to its supporters, a mute point is a point that cannot be discussed and so must remain silent.  This sounds reasonable until we recall that the definition of a moot point is one that is debatable and therefore must be discussed; moot point therefore means precisely the opposite of mute point.  An alternative explanation is offered by Urban Dictionary, which defines mute point as one made via conference call when your phone is on silent; it offers the sample sentence: ‘It was ten minutes before Robert realized that the eloquent argument he made was actually a mute point’.
            An alternative reanaylsis of moot point was coined by the intellectually-challenged Joey Tribbiani in the US sit-com Friends.  In a scene in which Joey advises his friend Rachel about her love life, they have the following exchange:
Joey:  All right, Rach. The big question is, “does he like you?” All right? Because if he doesn’t like you, this is all a moo point.
Rachel: Huh. A moo point?
Joey: Yeah, it’s like a cow’s opinion. It just doesn't matter. It’s moo.

For Joey the phrase is perfectly logical, although, like the explanation of mute point, it has a very different meaning from the original moot point.  But it does come close to an American use of moot, meaning ‘having no practical value’, ‘irrelevant’, which derives from the idea that a point invented purely for the sake of discussion has no practical purpose.   Even Rachel finds herself persuaded by Joey’s bogus etymologizing, much to her surprise and concern.  She turns to the others and asks ‘Have I been living with him too long, or did all that just make sense?’  The popularity of the programme, combined with the amusing image it conjures up of cows voicing opinions only to have them ignored, means that moo point is in widespread use today, although always with a nod to the source to ensure the error is not attributed to its user.