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Which Word Wednesday: Moot vs. Mute

By October 24, 2012 language No Comments

Today’s Which Word Wednesday word quandary is an evenly matched duel brought to you by my Wednesday running buddy (and fellow editor), Becky. She has seen our contestants, moot and mute, get misused and confused a time or two. So let’s see how these two words can be kept in their respective corners, shall we? Let us commence with the definitions from The Oxford American Dictionary:

moot :: adjective
subject to debate, dispute, or uncertainty, and typically not admitting of a final decision; having no practical significance, typically because the subject is too uncertain to allow a decision

mute
:: adjective > refraining from speech or temporarily speechless
:: noun > a person without the power of speech
:: verb > deaden, muffle, or soften the sound of

We have two four-letter words, beginning with the letter M, and ending with a T sound. But these are superficial, surface likenesses. Peeling back the matching skin reveals very different words, indeed.

Mute is the versatile one—it can be useful as an adjective, noun, or verb. It is also the commonly known one—we know how to mute (verb) our music or remain mute (adjective) or recognize a person who is mute (noun).

Sidebar: Interestingly enough, the OAD tells us the noun-form of mute is no longer PC: “To describe a person without the power of speech as mute (especially as in deaf-mute) is today likely to cause offense and is often regarded as outdated. Nevertheless, there is no directly equivalent term for mute in general use, apart from speech-impaired. The term profoundly deaf may be used to imply that a person has not developed any spoken language skills.”

Moot, on the other hand, has just one use: explaining something that is not worth explaining. It is most often paired with point, as in moot point. The OAD is helpful once again, explaining that “the adjective (originally an attributive noun use: see moot court) dates from the mid 16th cent.; the current verb sense dates from the mid 17th cent.”

A memory hook is needed to curtail our misuse and confusion. How about this? Moot is used only to describe a discussion point. If you are referring to a person, an action, or speech, use mute. Points are moot. Everything else is mute. See the pictorial at right for additional help.

What’s my WWW verdict? Old words are dicey. Use with care.

What’s your verdict? Have you ever made a mute point? Did you know that it was not longer PC to describe a person as mute? Do share in the comments.

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Check out previous Which Word Wednesday verdicts here.

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