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 

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