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A “moot” point

Q: I don’t know if you’ve ever considered the current use of the word “moot.” My dictionary defines it as “open or intended for discussion: debatable.” Now it’s commonly used with the exact opposite meaning: not open for debate. I find this interesting and annoying. Any comment?

A: The word “moot” is more complicated than you might think. It started life as a noun, meaning something like “meeting” or “gathering.” In the mid-16th century, the noun “moot” was used to refer to a gathering of law school students in which a hypothetical case was being discussed.

From this usage, the adjective developed in the 17th century. A “moot” case was a theoretical one being argued by law students; a “moot” court was a mock court; a “moot” point was an arguable or debatable one.

So far, so good. But ambiguity raised its ugly head in the 19th century, when the hypothetical aspect of “moot” led people to interpret it as meaning something like “irrelevant” or “insignificant” or “of no practical value.”

Today, most dictionaries define “moot” as either “debatable” or “irrelevant.” In the United States, the predominant meaning is “irrelevant.” In Britain, it’s “debatable.” Because of the ambiguity, you should be sure that the context makes clear which sense is meant.