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The Meaning of the Word "Moot" is Moot

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
Where Does the Phrase '… And the Horse You Rode In On' Come From?
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Horses may no longer be the dominant form of transportation in the U.S., but the legacy of our horseback-riding history lives on in language. When telling people off, we still use the phrase “... and the horse you rode in on.” These days, it’s rare for anyone you're telling to go screw themselves to actually be an equestrian, so where did “and the horse you rode in on” come from, anyway?

Well, let’s start with the basics. The phrase is, essentially, an intensifier, one typically appended to the phrase “F*** you.” As the public radio show "A Way With Words" puts it, it’s usually aimed at “someone who’s full of himself and unwelcome to boot.” As co-host and lexicographer Grant Barrett explains, “instead of just insulting you, they want to insult your whole circumstance.”

The phrase can be traced back to at least the 1950s, but it may be even older than that, since, as Barrett notes, plenty of crude language didn’t make it into print in the early 20th century. He suggests that it could have been in wide use even prior to World War II.

In 1998, William Safire of The New York Times tracked down several novels that employed the term, including The Friends of Eddie Coyle (1972) and No Bugles, No Drums (1976). The literary editor of the latter book, Michael Seidman, told Safire that he heard the term growing up in the Bronx just after the Korean War, leading the journalist to peg the origin of the phrase to at least the late 1950s.

The phrase has had some pretty die-hard fans over the years, too. Donald Regan, who was Secretary of the Treasury under Ronald Reagan from 1981 through 1984, worked it into his official Treasury Department portrait. You can see a title along the spine of a book in the background of the painting. It reads: “And the Horse You Rode In On,” apparently one of Regan’s favorite sayings. (The book in the painting didn't refer to a real book, but there have since been a few published that bear similar names, like Clinton strategist James Carville’s book …and the Horse He Rode In On: The People V. Kenneth Starr and Dakota McFadzean’s 2013 book of comics Other Stories And the Horse You Rode In On.)

It seems that even in a world where almost no one rides in on a horse, insulting a man’s steed is a timeless burn.

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
What’s the Origin of Jack-O’-Lanterns?
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TIM SLOAN/AFP/Getty Images

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.

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