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Today’s Word Nerd is a common error compounded by a common dispute about the actual meaning of one of the terms.
Moot: open to discussion or debate
of no consequence; hypothetical.
Mute: producing no sound; unable to speak
Moot is a Middle English word from around 900, meaning meeting. It comes from the Old English gemot, meaning meeting.
Mute is a later word, originating around 1350, from the Latin mutus, meaning silent.
Confusion between the two words is almost entirely centered on the phrase “a moot point,” which is also where the disagreement regarding meaning is centered; some grammarians will argue that a moot point is one that cannot be settled, while others will assert that it’s an irrelevant one in which the argument cannot in any way impact the situation under discussion.
The question of whether Lizzie Borden chopped up her parents with an axe is a moot one under both definitions: there’s no way to prove what actually happened, and even if one could prove she did it, she’s already dead and can’t be held accountable for it.
Grammarians can agree, however, that a mute point is one that’s made silently.