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The Meaning of the Word "Moot" is Moot

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The problem here is that "moot" has two distinctly different meanings, depending on your audience: Americans and the rest of the world appear to treat "moot" differently. A "moot point" (the typical use of moot) was originally one that was up for debate. As Michael Quinion writes in World Wide Words (emphasis added):

It comes from the same source as meet and originally had the same meaning. In England in medieval times it referred specifically to an assembly of people, in particular one that had some sort of judicial function, and was often spelled mot or mote. So you find references to the witenagemot (the assembly of the witan, the national council of Anglo-Saxon times), hundred-mote (where a hundred was an Anglo-Saxon administrative area, part of a county or shire), and many others. So something that was mooted was put up for discussion and decision at a meeting — by definition something not yet decided.

Lord of the Rings readers may recall the "Entmoot," a meeting of the Ents. Tolkien was keenly interested in linguistics and philology, and his use of "moot" reflects Quinion's linguistic understanding above.

What the OED Says

Furthermore, Maeve Maddox reports that the OED's primary definition for "moot" is:

1. Originally in Law, of a case, issue, etc.: proposed for discussion at a moot (MOOT n.1 4). Later also gen.: open to argument, debatable; uncertain, doubtful; unable to be firmly resolved. Freq. in moot case, [moot] point.

But to make things worse, Maddox points out the OED's second definition of "moot," acknowledging its common use in American English:

2. N. Amer. (orig. Law). Of a case, issue, etc.: having no practical significance or relevance; abstract, academic. Now the usual sense in North America.

Similar definitions appears on the Oxford Dictionaries and Merriam-Webster sites.

Moot Court

Moot court is a common activity in law school, in which students prepare arguments and present them before "judges" who are typically their professors or other established lawyers. In moot court, students are exposed to both sides of an argument, and generally argue whatever position is assigned to them. By definition, the issues explored in moot court are "open to debate" (in the sense that students are debating them), but moot court debate is of little overall significance because the moot court case is only hypothetical.

Many writers have suggested that this legal usage of the "moot point" may have led to the current American view of the word "moot" by a chain of logic something like this: a "moot point" is often an issue of little practical significance, assigned for argument in moot court; because the point itself may be academic or irrelevant, it's probably not worth arguing about outside of moot court; therefore a moot point is something of little significance. This is a neat trick of language, and seems plausible to me -- we go from the term "moot" clearly meaning "open to debate" and end up with "an issue not worth debating" (which, for the record, doesn't mean it's a settled point -- it just means that debate won't get us anywhere).

Moot vs. Mute

Another problem with "moot" is pronunciation. Because it's so often used as part of the phrase "moot point" and rarely heard in the English language elsewhere, speakers may assume that the word in question is actually "mute" (meaning silent, or unable to speak). These terms are different, and the pronunciation of "moot" is similar to the word "hoot."

The Take-Away

If you're writing for an international audience, you probably want to avoid the word "moot," because it might mean the exact opposite of what you intend -- depending on who's reading. As an American, I find myself naturally using "moot" in its Americanized Rick Springfield sense ("not worth debating"), but now that I've been exposed to dictionaries, I find it hard to use the term at all, for fear of being misunderstood by a broad audience. It may be simpler to use the term "debatable" when you mean that, or a phrase like "not worth debating" when it's appropriate. The only bummer about those is it's nearly impossible to find a good rhyme for "debatable" in a pop song. "Dateable," I suppose? Oh wait, that's not really a word. Sorry.

Trivia tip: apparently Rick Springfield's first band was called Zoot. I detect a pattern.

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Big Questions
What’s the Origin of Jack-O’-Lanterns?
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The term "jack-o'-lantern" was first applied to people, not pumpkins. As far back as 1663, the term meant a man with a lantern, or a night watchman. Just a decade or so later, it began to be used to refer to the mysterious lights sometimes seen at night over bogs, swamps, and marshes.

These ghost lights—variously called  jack-o’-lanterns, hinkypunks, hobby lanterns, corpse candles, fairy lights, will-o'-the-wisps, and fool's fire—are created when gases from decomposing plant matter ignite as they come into contact with electricity or heat or as they oxidize. For centuries before this scientific explanation was known, people told stories to explain the mysterious lights. In Ireland, dating as far back as the 1500s, those stories often revolved around a guy named Jack.

LEGEND HAS IT

As the story goes, Stingy Jack—often described as a blacksmith—invited the devil to join him for a drink. Stingy Jack didn't want to pay for the drinks from his own pocket, and convinced the devil to turn himself into a coin that could be used to settle the tab. The devil did so, but Jack skipped out on the bill and kept the devil-coin in his pocket with a silver cross so that the devil couldn’t shift back to his original form. Jack eventually let the devil loose, but made him promise that he wouldn’t seek revenge on Jack, and wouldn’t claim his soul when he died.

Later, Jack irked the devil again by convincing him to climb up a tree to pick some fruit, then carved a cross in the trunk so that the devil couldn’t climb back down (apparently, the devil is a sucker). Jack freed him again, on the condition that the devil once again not take revenge and not claim Jack’s soul.

When Stingy Jack eventually died, God would not allow him into heaven, and the devil, keeping his word, rejected Jack’s soul at the gates of hell. Instead, the devil gave him a single burning coal to light his way and sent him off into the night to “find his own hell.” Jack put the coal into a carved-out turnip and has supposedly been roaming the earth with it ever since. In Ireland, the ghost lights seen in the swamps were said to be Jack’s improvised lantern moving about as his restless soul wandered the countryside. He and the lights were dubbed "Jack of the Lantern," or "Jack O'Lantern."

OLD TALE, NEW TRADITIONS

The legend immigrated to the new world with the Irish, and it collided with another old world tradition and a new world crop. Making vegetable lanterns was a tradition of the British Isles, and carved-out turnips, beets, and potatoes were stuffed with coal, wood embers, or candles as impromptu lanterns to celebrate the fall harvest. As a prank, kids would sometimes wander off the road with a glowing veggie to trick their friends and travelers into thinking they were Stingy Jack or another lost soul. In America, pumpkins were easy enough to come by and good for carving, and got absorbed both into the carved lantern tradition and the associated prank. Over time, kids refined the prank and began carving crude faces into the pumpkins to kick up the fright factor and make the lanterns look like disembodied heads. By the mid-1800s, Stingy Jack’s nickname was applied to the prank pumpkin lanterns that echoed his own lamp, and the pumpkin jack-o’-lantern got its name.

Toward the end of the 19th century, jack-o’-lanterns went from just a trick to a standard seasonal decoration, including at a high-profile 1892 Halloween party hosted by the mayor of Atlanta. In one of the earliest instances of the jack-o’-lantern as Halloween decor, the mayor’s wife had several pumpkins—lit from within and carved with faces—placed around the party, ending Jack O’Lantern’s days of wandering, and beginning his yearly reign over America’s windowsills and front porches.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

 

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Big Questions
Why Do Ghosts Say ‘Boo’?
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People have screamed "boo," or at least some version of it, to startle others since the mid-16th century. (One of the earliest examples documented by the Oxford English Dictionary appeared in that 1560s poetic thriller, Smyth Whych that Forged Hym a New Dame.) But ghosts? They’ve only been yowling "boo" for less than two centuries.

The etymology of boo is uncertain. The OED compares it with the Latin boare or the Greek βοᾶν, meaning to “cry aloud, roar, [or] shout.” Older dictionaries suggest it could be an onomatopoeia mimicking the lowing of a cow.

Whatever the origins, the word had a slightly different shade of meaning a few hundred years ago: Boo (or, in the olden days, bo or bu) was not used to frighten others but to assert your presence. Take the traditional Scottish proverb “He can’t say bo to a goose,” which for centuries has been a slick way to call somebody timid or sheepish. Or consider the 1565 story Smyth Whych that Forged Hym a New Dame, in which an overconfident blacksmith tries to hammer a woman back into her youth, and the main character demands of his dying experiment: “Speke now, let me se / and say ones bo!”

Or, as Donatello would put it: “Speak, damn you, speak!”

But boo became scarier with time. After all, as the OED notes, the word is phonetically suited “to produce a loud and startling sound.” And by 1738, Gilbert Crokatt was writing in Presbyterian Eloquence Display’d that, “Boo is a Word that's used in the North of Scotland to frighten crying children.”

(We’re not here to question 250-year-old Scottish parenting techniques, but over at Slate, Forrest Wickman raises a good point: Why would anybody want to frighten a child who is already crying?)

In 18th century Scotland, bo, boo, and bu would latch onto plenty of words describing things that went bump in the night. According to the Dictionary of the Scots Language, the term bu-kow applied to hobgoblins and “anything frightful,” such as scarecrows. The word bogey, for “evil one,” would evolve into bogeyman. And there’s bu-man, or boo-man, a terrifying goblin that haunted man:

Kings, counsellors, and princes fair,

As weel's the common ploughman,

Hae maist their pleasures mix'd wi' care,

An' dread some muckle boo-man.

It was only a matter of time until ghosts got lumped into this creepy “muckle boo-man” crowd.

Which is too bad. Before the early 1800s, ghosts were believed to be eloquent, sometimes charming, and very often literary speakers. The spirits that appeared in the works of the Greek playwrights Euripides and Seneca held the important job of reciting the play’s prologue. The apparitions in Shakespeare’s plays conversed in the same swaying iambic pentameter as the living. But by the mid-1800s, more literary ghosts apparently lost interest in speaking in complete sentences. Take this articulate exchange with a specter from an 1863 Punch and Judy script.

Ghost: Boo-o-o-oh!

Punch: A-a-a-ah!

Ghost: Boo-o-o-o-oh!

Punch: Oh dear ! oh dear ! It wants’t me!

Ghost:  Boo-o-o-o-oh!

It’s no surprise that boo’s popularity rose in the mid-19th century. This was the age of spiritualism, a widespread cultural obsession with paranormal phenomena that sent scores of people flocking to mediums and clairvoyants in hopes of communicating with the dead. Serious scientists were sending electrical shocks through the bodies of corpses to see if reanimating the dead was possible; readers were engrossed in terrifying Gothic fiction (think Frankenstein, Zastrozzi, and The Vampyre); British police departments were reporting a heightened number of ghost sightings as graveyards were plagued by “ghost impersonators,” hoaxsters who camped out in cemeteries covered in white robes and pale chalk. It’s probably no coincidence that ghosts began to develop their own vocabulary—limited as it may be—during a period when everybody was curious about the goings-on within the spirit realm.

It may also help that boo was Scottish. Many of our Halloween traditions, such as the carving of jack-o’-lanterns, were carried overseas by Celtic immigrants. Scotland was a great exporter of people in the middle of the 1800s, and perhaps it’s thanks to the Scots-Irish diaspora that boo became every ghost’s go-to greeting.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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