When I was in graduate school at Yale I was asked to be a part of a jury for a trial at the Yale Law School. It was their annual moot court session, in which graduating (hopefully) scholars were tested on their courtroom skills. It was a fascinating experience in which soon-to-be attorneys prepared a case, acted it out in front of a judge and then heard the results of its performance when the jury gave a “verdict.” The law students sweated through the process, and it was clear that they had put a great deal of work into their preparations. It was anything but an experience “of no practical importance.”
However, that is the definition of the word for today, moot. It is an adjective applied to a faux experience in which the outcome is negligible. The matter has already been decided, or the information no longer applies to the question being asked.
Clearly, the members of that moot court took it very seriously, as did the jury, and…while the results of the trial would never be recorded in a municipal journal…there were important outcomes which affected the participants for the rest of their lives.
That being said, it is important to recognize that the word moot is legitimate. It is used to indicate that the point being made is insignificant. For instance, there is no point in arguing who the candidates for President will be in 2012. It’s a moot point. As the eligible incumbent, Barack Obama will represent the Democratic Party, and, given the results of the primary season and its succeeding weeks, Mitt Romney will be the Republican candidate. (A coups d’etat could take place at the Republican Convention, but it is less than likely.)
Originally, it turns out that the word moot meant something else. It indicated that something was arguable and had NOT been decided. Around 1900, however, for some strange reason, the meaning shifted to the negative, and moot took on its new understanding of already decided and insignificant.
In his definitive text on American English, Bryan Garner indicates that the British, however, tend to hold onto the old definition, often causing confusion in their documents. He says
“To use moot in the sense “open to argument” in modern [American English] is to create an ambiguity and to confuse readers. In [British English], the transformation in sense has been slower, and moot in its older sense retains vitality.” (p.547)
But for our purposes we will continue to see the word as a very descriptive adjective which indicates that the argument is useless, the point having already been determined. It is very helpful in current political matters, such as the location of the President’s birth, and the record Mr. Romney has related to universal health care. They have both been decided a long time ago.
Photo Credit: Bill Youngblood