DIFFERENTIAL: “a difference or the amount of difference, as in rate, cost, quantity, degree, or quality, between things that are comparable.” — Random House Dictionary

There is a difference between differential and difference. However, it would be inaccurate to say there is a differential between differential and difference. Are we clear?

Differential  in its noun form refers to a difference in quantity — more specifically, a change in quantity. Accountants prize knowledge of “price differentials” and engineers can bandy about “bandwidth differential,” but you (and you know who you are) cannot refer to the differential between a PowerPoint deck and the handout. And if you argue that you can because presentations involve numbers, you need to go back in time to the Middle Ages, where universities taught logic instead of the semiotics of Kanye lyrics (and didn’t tolerate the kind of stream-of-consciousness word association so many substitute for reasoning today).

The word you seek is difference. There is a difference between right and wrong. There is a difference between decaf and full-test. There is even a difference between the prices of toner at your local Staples and OfficeMax. (The differential is between the rate of increase in their prices, or between one store’s prices in different markets.)  Look. If you don’t know, just use the word difference. It works fine even if differential is proper, and you don’t sound like a pretentious ignoramus (or a manager) if it isn’t. 

 Otto E. Mezzo

Moot Point/Mute Point

MOOT POINT: “a debatable question, an issue open to argument; also, an irrelevant question, a matter of no importance” — The American Heritage Dictionary of Idioms

MOOT: “subject to debate, dispute or uncertainty, and typically not admitting of a final decision” — New Oxford American Dictionary

We don’t typically address mishearings, misreadings or misspeakings here, but this one presents an interesting opportunity. Before 2008, I had never heard “moot point” rendered as “mute point.” Now, it seems the mangled usage is ubiquitous enough to signal an impending shift. Click on the links below and hear “Joe the Plumber” say it and The Nation and The Guardian print it. Granted, the publications employ mute point as a pun, but now that thousands of people have seen it, it’s-a gonna stick.

Two developments make this lexicide particularly fascinating. First, it’s a lexicide of a lexicide. Moot’s original meaning was “open to debate;” the word is related to meet. Moots were assemblies convened to discuss or debate a topic, and this sense lives on in moot court, where law students face off in a courtroom to argue a hypothetical case. Because of moot courts, which have no legal consequence, the meaning of moot shifted from “open to debate” to “irrelevant.” Moot still retains its original meaning — in fact, all the dictionaries I consulted list “open to debate” as its primary definition. But in the States, at least, when you read moot, you think “of no consequence.”

But now that moot point is becoming mute point, it appears the whole concept of a worthless discussion is about to disappear. Several sources (web pages, fellow consultants) indicate that business folk believe mute points are those you make while using the mute button (See the Urban Dictionary entry below). Unpoetic (I preferred The Nation’s usage), but sadly funny, too.

So first people misunderstood moot, then misheard it as mute, and now transform the meaning to match the definition. I’m not even sure modern office denizens, who seem to have limited language skills, understand that the word mute has meanings apart from the little button on the phone. But I’ve learned better than to waste my breath defending an irrelevant point, even one open to debate.

Otto E. Mezzo

References: Joe the Plumber makes a mute point with Bill Maher
The Urban Dictionary 


DILEMMA: “a situation that requires a choice between options that are or seem equally unfavorable or mutually exclusive” — The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, Fourth Edition

“In Gwinnett County, the drug dealers are able to hide in plain sight,” county District Attorney Danny Porter said. “…The presence of the organizations is a dilemma enough that we have to develop new tactics.” (Mexican drug cartels thrive in suburban Atlanta, CNN.com, March 19, 2009)

Ah yes. Three years of law school wasn’t enough to eradicate the lexical misinformation which so suffocates our nation. Not that D.A. Porter, Esq., is to blame. Almost all dictionaries (except for the New Oxford American, my favorite) allow for what is now the main definition of dilemma: “any difficult situation,” although some, like NOAD and ADH4, include usage notes decrying this meaning. 58% of ADH4‘s usage panel rejected the watered down definition, although, surprisingly, 64% said dilemma was acceptable when referring to a choice between three or more bad choices.

Surprisingly, because dilemma comes from the Greek for “two propositions” (mathematicians will recognize the stand-alone lemma). The word has been with us since the 16th century and has its origins in formal logic. Dilemmas were often posed as intellectual exercises, since in real life, it is rare that two alternatives are equal in their badness.

Nevertheless, a Google search reveals another surprise. Despite casual misuse of the word, most news outlets, bloggers and even rap artist Nelly seem to be within striking distance of the traditional definition of dilemma. Which puts me in a difficult spot — I either criticize them and be in the wrong, or else congratulate them and momentarily surrender my righteous condescension. A true dilemma indeed.

— Otto E. Mezzo

References: http://www.cnn.com/2009/CRIME/03/19/atlanta.drug.cartels/index.html
Wikipedia’s explanation of dilemma 
A more detailed exposition of what makes a dilemma, with sample dilemmas you will recognize
Lyrics to Nelly and Kelly Rowland’s “Dilemma” 

P.S. In case you were interested, a choice between three equally diabolical alternatives is called a trilemma. Four, a tetralemma, and so on.