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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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Pete Toscano, Flickr // CC BY-SA 2.0
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Here's the Right Way to Pronounce 'Pulitzer'
Pete Toscano, Flickr // CC BY-SA 2.0
Pete Toscano, Flickr // CC BY-SA 2.0

The Pulitzer Prize has been awarded to top creative and scientific minds for over 100 years. Named after late 19th-century newspaper publisher Joseph Pulitzer, the prize is a household name, yet its pronunciation still tends to trip people up. Is it “pull-itzer” or “pew-litzer”?

Poynter set the record straight just in time for today’s announcement of the 2018 Pulitzer Prize winners. Emily Rauh Pulitzer, wife of the late Joseph Pulitzer Jr., told Poynter, “My husband said that his father told people to say ‘Pull it sir.’”

If you’ve been saying it wrong, don’t feel too bad. Edwin Battistella, a linguist and professor at Southern Oregon University, said he pronounced it “pew-lit-zer” until a friend corrected him. Battistella looked to Joseph Pulitzer’s family history to explain why so many people pronounce it incorrectly. He writes on the Oxford University Press's OUPBlog:

“[Joseph Pulitzer] was born in Hungary, where Pulitzer, or Politzer as it is sometimes spelled, was a common family name derived from a place name in southern Moravia, the village of Pullitz. In the United States, the spelling Pulitzer would have quite naturally been Anglicized as PEW-lit-zer by analogy to the other pu spellings like pure, puritanical, pubic, puce, and so on.”

Ultimately, though, it’s up to the family to decide how they’d like their surname to be pronounced. Here it is, pronounced just how the Pulitzers like it, in a YouTube video:

[h/t Poynter]

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Researchers Claim to Crack the Voynich Manuscript Using AI, But Experts Are Skeptical

Computing scientists at the University of Alberta recently made a bold claim: They say they’ve identified the source language of the baffling Voynich Manuscript, and they did so using artificial intelligence.

Their study, published in Transactions of the Association of Computational Linguistics [PDF], basically states that an AI algorithm trained to recognize hundreds of languages determined the Voynich Manuscript to be encoded Hebrew. On the surface, this looks like a huge breakthrough: Since it was rediscovered a century ago, the Voynich Manuscript’s indecipherable text has stumped everyone from World War II codebreakers to computer programmers. But experts are hesitant to give credence to the news. “I have very little faith in it,” cryptographer Elonka Dunin tells Mental Floss. “Hebrew, and dozens of other languages have been identified before. Everyone sees what they want to see.”

Anyone who’s familiar with the Voynich Manuscript should understand the skepticism. The book, which contains 246 pages of illustrations and apparent words written in an unknown script, is obscured by mystery. It’s named for Wilfrid Voynich, the Polish book dealer who purchased it in 1912, but experts believe it was written 600 years ago. Nothing is known about the person who authored it or the book’s purpose.

Many cryptologists suspect the text is a cipher, or a coded pattern of letters that must be unscrambled to make sense. But no code has been identified even after decades of the world’s best cryptographers testing countless combinations. With their study, the researchers at the University of Alberta claim to have done something different. Instead of relying on human linguists and codebreakers, they developed an AI program capable of identifying the source languages of text. They fed the technology 380 versions of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, each one translated into a different language and enciphered. After learning to recognize codes in various languages, the AI was given some pages of the Voynich Manuscript. Based on what it had seen already, it named Hebrew as the book’s original language—a surprise to the researchers, who were expecting Arabic.

The researchers then devised an algorithm that rearranged the letters into real words. They were able to make actual Hebrew out of 80 percent of the encoded words in the manuscript. Next, they needed to find an ancient Hebrew scholar to look at the words and determine if they fit together coherently.

But the researchers claim they were unable to get in touch with any scholars, and instead used Google Translate to make sense of the first sentence of the manuscript. In English, the decoded words they came up with read, “She made recommendations to the priest, man of the house and me and people." Study co-author Greg Kondrak said in a release, “It’s a kind of strange sentence to start a manuscript but it definitely makes sense.”

Dunin is less optimistic. According to her, naming a possible cipher and source language without actually translating more of the text is no cause for celebration. “They identify a method without decrypting a paragraph,” she says. Even their method is questionable. Dunin points out the AI program was trained using ciphers that the researchers themselves wrote, not ciphers from real life. “They scrambled the texts using their own system, then they used their own software to de-scramble those. Then they used it on the manuscript and said, ‘Oh look, it’s Hebrew!’ So it’s a big, big leap.”

The University of Alberta researchers aren’t the first to claim they’ve identified the language of the Voynich Manuscript, and they won’t be the last. But unless they’re able the decode the full text into a meaningful language, the manuscript remains as mysterious today as it did 100 years ago. And if you agree with cryptographers like Dunin who think the book might be a constructed language, a detailed hoax, or even a product of mental illness, it’s a mystery without a satisfying explanation.

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