Mr Peter Andrews writes to tell me that he was told by a lawyer with whom he used to be a school that a moot point is not one that is debatable, but one that has already been decided. This is not news that has reached the Oxford English Dictionary, which happens to have revised its entry on moot only a few weeks ago.
Originally, a moot point was one proposed for discussion at a moot. A moot, in the legal sense, was either ‘a discussion of a hypothetical case by law students for practice’ or ‘a hypothetical doubtful case that may be used for discussion’. The dictionary then gets into a chatty mood and notes that moots were ‘revived in the Inns of Court in the 19th century, but fell into disuse (last retained at Gray’s Inn according to the New English Dictionary [i.e., the Oxford English Dictionary] 1908). Reintroduced subsequently into universities where law is studied and into the Inns of Court.’
That is pretty plain. It seems to me that a moot, mentioned in the early 16th century, was a legal version of the disputatio, the medieval university exercise in which students had to take part in order to attain their degrees. A variation of this was the quodlibet, where a master would discuss questions on any subject, posed by any member of the audience. Again the OED gets chatty, telling us that ‘these exercises originated at the faculty of theology in Paris in the 1230s, and similar exercises continued into the 18th century at the University of Oxford’. The dictionary points out perfectly correctly that a sense of quodlibet meaning a ‘quibble’ arose ‘from the abstruse nature of the topics which might be discussed in quodlibets as well as from a general disparagement of scholastic learning’. Just the same thing happened to moot, at least in America, where the normal sense of the word is now: ‘having no practical significance or relevance’. Indeed in 1973 an American judge said: ‘Motion for an order dismissing this indictment for lack of prosecution is dismissed as moot.’
Thus moot has developed in a parallel sense to academic and, more recently theological.
Moot is also one of those fossilised metaphors sufficiently dead to allow confusion with a near homophone. So you hear people talking of a mute point, just they speak of honing in, instead of homing in, and of someone doing things off his own back, instead of off his own bat. Those are not, we must hope, mistakes that a lawyer would ever make.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated August 14, 2010