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Whether to Give a Hoot About Moot

Those who follow the evolution of English understand that some words with a once-fixed identity can get pulled into the pool of common use and begin to lose their form.

Some words become a new creation. Others obtain a duality that makes them hard to discern. One such word is moot.

Dating back to the 1500s, English law students used it within legal exercises to describe something that was arguable and open to debate or discussion. A moot point was one lacking certainty and needing greater evidence for substantiation.

During the 1800s, however, some English speakers began imbuing the word with the sense of being hypothetical or having questionable relevance. Within legal circles, moot could then also be used to express a point of little relevance or practical value.

In spite of this encroachment, the original meaning would stand firm for many years before being confronted more vigorously with the prospect of change.

In 1934, Webster’s New International Dictionary defined the adjective form of moot as “Subjected or subject to argument or discussion; disputed; as, a moot case or question.” It also included a verb form meaning “To argue for and against; to discuss; to propose, or bring up, for discussion.”

The greater, more determined challenge would infiltrate only a few decades later. In 1966, The Random House Dictionary of the English Language defined the adjective moot as “1. subject to argument or discussion; debatable; doubtful: a moot point. 2. of little or no practical value or meaning; purely academic. 3. not actual; theoretical or hypothetical.”

Moot’s 1966 verb form in the dictionary meant “4. to present or introduce (any point, subject, project, etc.) for discussion. 5. to reduce or remove the practical significance of; make purely theoretical or academic.”

The vernacular broom was starting to sweep aside centuries of established, hard-working usage. Camps consequently divided into adherents to the original meaning and separatists intent on giving the word a different life in a new age.

The camps would remain well opposed for several more decades with the separatists gaining a gradual edge along the way. In a 1988 American Heritage Dictionary survey, 59 percent of the dictionary’s Usage Panel accepted the adjective moot as meaning superfluous or academic.

In 2008, the challenging force finally took over. Eighty-three percent of the Usage Panel accepted the adjective’s modified meaning (the verb form is now defunct except in rare instances in the U.K.). Now, nearly a decade later, the approving percentage could well be even higher.

So the question remains: Who still gives a hoot about moot? We’re sometimes sorry to see once sturdy definitions fade. We also recognize that times and people change, as do their words.

The problem now is that we have embraced both definitions of moot depending on their context. This sounds like confusion-and-questions-in-waiting to us.

The purists in us would have upheld the original definition. The realists in us acknowledge that the lots of mixed usage have already been cast on a grand scale.

And so we arrive at our verdict: Rather than muddle meanings with moots, you might consider a different word to express your thought, whether it be arguable or irrelevant.

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