Why is English spelling considered to be so fiendishly difficult? Should it be reformed to make it easier to learn? Is the way we spell being corrupted by text-messaging, e-mail and Twitter? This blog is for anyone interested in spelling, its history, its role in society and its future.
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 mootpoint 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 mutepoint 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 “mute”
point, 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’.
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 mutepoint, 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.