I’ve been a fan of the NBC show My Name Is Earl since it premiered—I find it funny and smart and I’m a big believer in karma. A scene in last night’s show had me in stitches over something that has driven me nuts for years—people who confuse “mute” and “moot” in the phrase “moot point.”
As a legislative aide back in Missouri, I heard some of the most creative butchering of the English language when I listened to legislators during floor debates. “Pass muster” was “passed mustard.” (No, I am not kidding. Yes, I realize that makes no sense at all.) One senator often used the word “flustrated,” which I believe was a mash-up of “flustered” and “frustrated” before mash-ups were part of the lexicon. Rampant use of the non-word “irregardless” is so common I hear it everywhere—people actually think this is a word. It is not. It is another incorrect mash-up of “irrespective” and “regardless.”
And, of course, there’s the moot point. In my opinion the reason that this phrase is so commonly mistreated is that “mute point” on some level makes sense—mute=silence, mute point=silent point. This is how the scene played out on Earl last night.
For word etymologists out there, “moot” is described thusly by the always useful Dictionary.com:
The adjective moot is originally a legal term going back to the mid-16th century. It derives from the noun moot, in its sense of a hypothetical case argued as an exercise by law students. Consequently, a moot question is one that is arguable or open to debate. But in the mid-19th century people also began to look at the hypothetical side of moot as its essential meaning, and they started to use the word to mean “of no significance or relevance.” Thus, a moot point, however debatable, is one that has no practical value. A number of critics have objected to this use, but 59 percent of the Usage Panel accepts it in the sentence The nominee himself chastised the White House for failing to do more to support him, but his concerns became moot when a number of Republicans announced that they, too, would oppose the nomination. When using moot one should be sure that the context makes clear which sense is meant.
(The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, Fourth Edition, Copyright © 2006 by Houghton Mifflin Company. Published by Houghton Mifflin Company. All rights reserved.)
Of course, anyone reading this blog already knows this. But now I feel better, and the story about how I once saw “death nails” instead of “death knell” in a news release can wait for another day.