What’s a moot?

By Curtis Honeycutt

Joey: All right, Rach. The big question is, “does he like you?” All right? Because if he doesn’t like you, this is all a moo point.

Rachel: Huh. A moo point?

Joey: Yeah, it’s like a cow’s opinion. It just doesn’t matter. It’s moo.

Many of you remember the Friends episode entitled, “The One Where Chandler Doesn’t Like Dogs,” in which Joey Tribiani further confuses an already confusing phrase. Many people get “moot point” confused with “mute point,” but Mr. Tribiani adds another (and a hilarious) phrasal faux pas to the list.

Discussing a “moot” point, not a “moo” point. Photo from Stock Unlimited.

The correct phrase, of course, is “moot point”, which is an inconsequential or irrelevant point. “Mute” here certainly makes sense. I think the idea is if you mute something, you can’t hear it anymore. But “moot” came first. So, what exactly is “moot”?

Moot is something that is open for debate. It comes from the Old English word gemot, which was any legislative or judicial court where people would meet to discuss a matter. A moot point was something that hadn’t yet been decided. It’s where we get the word “meet” from.

How did something that meant “up for debate” become known as something trivial and irrelevant? Welcome to Moot Court.

A moot court is where law students competitively hone their arguing skills. It involves a simulated appellate court case, where students focus on the application of the law to a standard set of evidentiary suppositions, facts and clarifications to which the competitors are introduced. In other words, moot court is made up. The debates held at moot courts are purely academic. Other than a nerdy way for law students to get better at lawyering, the outcomes and arguments make absolutely no real-world difference. They’re moot points.

Moot can, therefore, either mean “debatable” or “irrelevant.” In the U.S., it will almost always mean “irrelevant,” while, in England it’s more likely to be used as a synonym for “debatable.”

Here’s a way to remember moot vs. mute: Since I have two feet, owning only one boot is pointless. Boot rhymes with moot. A butte is kind of like a mesa. Butte rhymes with moot. Buttes don’t make any noise. One boot is moot. One butte is mute. Just like Joey in Friends, I’ll be there for you to settle any word debates or grammar conundrums.

— Curtis Honeycutt is a nationally award-winning syndicated humor writer. Connect with him on Twitter (@curtishoneycutt) or at curtishoneycutt.com.