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Debatable, or maybe not.

Dear Word Detective: I’m a non-native speaker of English (one who, rather perversely, enjoys exploring the seemingly endless confusion within this language). I wanted to ask you about this word “moot,” which seems to be used in three very different, even contradictory, senses. First, people say “moot question” to mean, roughly, “the key point.” The second sense in which I’ve heard this word used in the sense of “redundant”: so a “moot” issue would be an issue that has been rendered pointless. And finally, “moot” means contentious, under dispute (and this last meaning is the only one my Oxford English Dictionary (OED) seems to support, with a full etymology — but I’ve heard the other two senses used too often for them to be simply individual errors in usage, or so it seems to me). So what is the right usage? And (assuming the first two aren’t entirely “wrong”) how did one single word come to have such opposing meanings? — Partha Sen Sharma.

Well, if you’re looking for things that doesn’t make sense, especially words that are used to mean two or more apparently contradictory things, you’ve picked the right language. English is full of what are sometimes called “contranyms” or “autoantonyms,” words which have, for one reason or another, evolved over time into being used as their own opposites. Two examples that pop up frequently are “cleave,” which can mean both “to cut apart” and “to stick together tightly,” and “fast,” which is used to mean “moving rapidly” as well as “firmly fixed.”

The source of our modern “moot” is the Old English “mot,” which meant “meeting” (and came from the same root that gave us “meet”), most often used in the word “gemot,” which meant “community meeting to discuss public affairs and policies.” The Anglo-Saxon parliament, for example, was known as the “Witenagemot,” which meant “meeting of wise men.” The use of “moot” to mean “meeting” was common from the 12th century onward, and still occasionally crops up (“The moot, consisting of all school, community, and ancillary staff, ? was dealing with such issues as representation on the governing body,” 1973).

Since most meetings involve at least a little argument, beginning in the 13th century “moot” came into use meaning “a discussion or argument.” And, since most truly momentous arguments wind up in court, “moot” soon came to mean “a plea, accusation, or other cause of action in a court of law.” So if I had sued you back in 1566 for breaking my water skis, that suit would have been called a “moot.” This usage, combined with the tradition of “moot” meaning a community meeting where issues were thrashed out, gave us “moot” as an adjective meaning “open to argument; debatable.”

That use of “moot” to mean “active case in court” eventually became obsolete in the actual judicial system. But “moot” had taken on a special meeting in law schools, where a “moot” was an actual case, already settled by a real court, that was re-argued by law students as practice in gatherings called “moot courts.” But while these “moot cases” were based on real issues of law and helpful in training lawyers, the moot court arguments were purely hypothetical, and by the 19th century the common use of “moot” had shifted from “up for argument, unsettled, debatable” to “settled, of no consequence, irrelevant.”

This use of “moot” to mean “irrelevant” (especially “having been rendered irrelevant by events”) is now the primary usage, at least in the US (“Senators McCain and Kerry have probably made moot … the War Powers threat that has been fitfully gathering steam in the House,” 6/22/10). But every so often you’ll run into “moot” meaning “debatable” or “in doubt,” so context is the only way to be certain of the intended meaning.


When make-do won’t do.

Dear Word Detective: I’ve recently run into the word “jackleg” — one I’d never seen before. Not that I thought I’d seen every word, but something this odd usually shows up somewhere in the reading I’ve done. I’m assuming it’s a regional word, but I’ve no idea.  Apparently it means “unscrupulous” or “without professional standards.” Any idea where this word comes from? — Barney Johnson.

Thanks for asking this question. I’m not just being being polite in saying that; I’m really glad you asked it. I did a column on “jackleg” way back in 1998, but I came up somewhat empty-handed. So when I received your question, I went looking to see if anyone had made any progress on determining its origins in the thirteen years since I tackled it. As we say in the word origins biz, bingo. Thanks to the work of several researchers, we have a good hunch about the origin of “jackleg.”

The definition of “jackleg” as an adjective to be found in the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) definitely deserves a round of applause: “Incompetent, unskilled; unscrupulous, dishonest. Frequently used of lawyers and preachers.” The OED pegs the term as a US invention, dates its first appearance in print to 1850 (“A party of some twenty of the most notorious rode up, headed by what is there [i.e. in Texas] known as a ‘jack-leg’ lawyer”), and gives roughly the same period for its use as a noun to mean “An incompetent or unskilled or unprincipled person.” The Historical Dictionary of American Slang gives slightly earlier examples of the adjective, and notes that it has also been used to mean “hastily thrown together, ragtag, shoddy,” often referring to work done by a “jackleg” (untrained) carpenter or builder.

The OED doesn’t suggest an etymology for “jackleg” apart from pointing out that it’s a combination of “leg” and “jack” (short for “John” and often used as a generic name for “the common man”). Pointing to the similar “blackleg” as a colloquial term for a dishonest gambler, the OED notes simply that “As in other slang expressions, the origin of the name is lost,” apparently including “jackleg” in that “lost” group.

Fortunately, back in 2001 the American Dialect Society mailing list rode to our rescue with an interesting discussion of “jackleg.” The British etymologist Jonathon Green suggested that “jackleg” might be related to the 18th century British term “jack-a-legs,” meaning a simple folding knife with a broad, square blade of the sort used by unskilled carpenters who lacked sophisticated tools. In extended use, “jack-a-legs” appeared in the US as the adjective “jack-legged” or “jakeleg,” meaning “unskilled.”

Of course, that just shifts the mystery one step back, leaving us wondering where “jack-a-legs” came from. On the ADS list, Grant Barrett then helpfully pointed to the OED entry for “jockteleg,” a Scots word (with related forms “jacklag,” “jack-o-legs,” “jockeylegs” and others) that means “folding knife” (and thus is almost certainly the same word as “jackleg”). A note in the OED quotes a glossary of Scots compiled by Lord Hailes around 1776: “The etymology of this word remained unknown till not many years ago an old knife was found having this inscription Jacques de Liege, the name of the cutler [knife-maker].” The OED then quotes two other sources attesting to the existence of this Jacques de Liege. So it seems that this knife-maker, by inscribing his name on his knives, gave us the American slang term “jackleg.” The OED expresses some skepticism about this story, but they do say that “On the face of it this account is plausible.”

I suspect that the term “blackleg,” meaning a crooked gambler, might be simply an extra-derogatory variant on “jackleg.” But the real kicker to this story is that this same Jacques de Liege, assuming he actually existed, may also have been the mysterious “jack” in “jack knife.”


Veni, vidi, vomito.

Dear Word Detective: Does “optics” now mean “appearance”? I stopped in my tracks. I’ve never seen this usage of the word “optics” before this article from today’s Huffington Post: “But the optics of the decision will nonetheless ding the former Massachusetts governor….” Presumably the writer means something like “appearance,” but I could be mistaken. I blame the article’s editors for being asleep at the wheel and letting jargon triumph over clarity. What does the Word Detective think? — Pamela the Reluctant Prescriptor.

Well, I say it’s spinach, and I say the, um, heck with it. Or something. I, too, would blame the editors at the HuffPo (as they call it), but I’m not sure they actually have any. After all, ninety percent of their content is lifted from other news sources (which have actual editors) and only lightly re-written. The article you mention appears, refreshingly, to be original to HuffPo and was written by their “Senior Political Reporter,” an alumnus of a print newspaper in DC, which makes him a real journalist as such things go these days. In any case, I’m sure that “optics” in that story would be just fine with the possibly hypothetical HuffPo editor. It’s just the sort of “inside the beltway” terminology that the Washington press corps likes to sprinkle through its copy to give readers the tingly sense that the reporter knows all the super-secret inside poop and should be taken Very Seriously.

“Optics” in that sentence does indeed mean “appearance” or “public perception,” the simple “how it looks” likely to be understood by voters, which in this case is being counterposed to the supposed deeper reasoning behind Mitt Romney’s decision not to sign a pledge being circulated by a political group. Had the author simply used “appearance” or “public perception,” that would have been more clearly simply his opinion. Like all jargon deployed in everyday life, “optics” implies expertise and inside knowledge.

“Optics” in this usage does have an interesting history, which was uncovered last year by Ben Zimmer in his all-too-brief stint as successor to William Safire as the On Language columnist at the Sunday New York Times Magazine. (Don’t get me started on the stupidity of the Times in eliminating that feature, for which Zimmer had been a brilliant choice.) Zimmer found an instance of Jimmy Carter’s “inflation counselor,” Robert Strauss, noting in 1978 that a certain action “…would be a nice optical step,” meaning that it would look good from a public relations standpoint. The noun form “optics” then steadily gained momentum through the 1980s in today’s sense of “public appearance.”

Oddly enough, as Zimmer discovered, that spreading use of “optics” by political insiders and observers took place largely in Canada, not the US. According to a Canadian lexicographer contacted by Zimmer, the readiness of the Canadians to adopt the usage may have been due to the existence in French of the term “optique.” That “optique,” in addition to all the standard uses we put “optics” to (physics, photography, opthalmology, etc.), is used to mean “perspective, point of view” and, by extension, “appearances in general.” It seems likely that the early adopters of the political jargon “optics” included many bilingual French-Canadians who were already familiar with “optique.”

Still, as Zimmer noted, “optics” could not have been an entirely Canadian invention, because it also cropped up occasionally, largely in business reporting, throughout the 1980s in the US. The appeal of the term is obvious. As Jan Freeman, language columnist for the Boston Globe, noted in 2008, “optics,” unlike fuzzy constructs such as “appearances,” has an aura of scientific precision that appeals to advisers and consultants striving to lend weight to their words. “It invokes a whole set of tech-and-science terms like physics, statistics, and tectonics,” Freeman said, “as well as Greek-derived high-concept nouns like hermeneutics, aesthetics, and pragmatics, all with an aura of brainy precision.” All I can say is that “optics” may invoke all those things, but that doesn’t mean just tweaking the spin will muddle the minds of regular people. A few years ago I adopted the acronym JWILL (pronounced “jay-will”) as my personal guide to understanding why public figures do what they do. It stands for “Just What It Looks Like,” and it hasn’t failed me yet.