Debatable, or maybe not.

Dear Word Detective: I’m a non-native speaker of English (one who, rather perversely, enjoys exploring the seemingly endless confusion within this language). I wanted to ask you about this word “moot,” which seems to be used in three very different, even contradictory, senses. First, people say “moot question” to mean, roughly, “the key point.” The second sense in which I’ve heard this word used in the sense of “redundant”: so a “moot” issue would be an issue that has been rendered pointless. And finally, “moot” means contentious, under dispute (and this last meaning is the only one my Oxford English Dictionary (OED) seems to support, with a full etymology — but I’ve heard the other two senses used too often for them to be simply individual errors in usage, or so it seems to me). So what is the right usage? And (assuming the first two aren’t entirely “wrong”) how did one single word come to have such opposing meanings? — Partha Sen Sharma.

Well, if you’re looking for things that doesn’t make sense, especially words that are used to mean two or more apparently contradictory things, you’ve picked the right language. English is full of what are sometimes called “contranyms” or “autoantonyms,” words which have, for one reason or another, evolved over time into being used as their own opposites. Two examples that pop up frequently are “cleave,” which can mean both “to cut apart” and “to stick together tightly,” and “fast,” which is used to mean “moving rapidly” as well as “firmly fixed.”

The source of our modern “moot” is the Old English “mot,” which meant “meeting” (and came from the same root that gave us “meet”), most often used in the word “gemot,” which meant “community meeting to discuss public affairs and policies.” The Anglo-Saxon parliament, for example, was known as the “Witenagemot,” which meant “meeting of wise men.” The use of “moot” to mean “meeting” was common from the 12th century onward, and still occasionally crops up (“The moot, consisting of all school, community, and ancillary staff, ? was dealing with such issues as representation on the governing body,” 1973).

Since most meetings involve at least a little argument, beginning in the 13th century “moot” came into use meaning “a discussion or argument.” And, since most truly momentous arguments wind up in court, “moot” soon came to mean “a plea, accusation, or other cause of action in a court of law.” So if I had sued you back in 1566 for breaking my water skis, that suit would have been called a “moot.” This usage, combined with the tradition of “moot” meaning a community meeting where issues were thrashed out, gave us “moot” as an adjective meaning “open to argument; debatable.”

That use of “moot” to mean “active case in court” eventually became obsolete in the actual judicial system. But “moot” had taken on a special meeting in law schools, where a “moot” was an actual case, already settled by a real court, that was re-argued by law students as practice in gatherings called “moot courts.” But while these “moot cases” were based on real issues of law and helpful in training lawyers, the moot court arguments were purely hypothetical, and by the 19th century the common use of “moot” had shifted from “up for argument, unsettled, debatable” to “settled, of no consequence, irrelevant.”

This use of “moot” to mean “irrelevant” (especially “having been rendered irrelevant by events”) is now the primary usage, at least in the US (“Senators McCain and Kerry have probably made moot … the War Powers threat that has been fitfully gathering steam in the House,” 6/22/10). But every so often you’ll run into “moot” meaning “debatable” or “in doubt,” so context is the only way to be certain of the intended meaning.

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