A June 4, 2013, U-T article included this sentence: “Mayor Bob Filner said Monday he is moving forward with his plan to remove most cars and parking from the center of Balboa Park, calling a rival $45 million plan by Qualcomm’s Irwin Jacobs ‘moot.’”
Hold your horses. Doesn’t moot possess two opposite meanings: “arguable” and “settled”? Back when I attended Harvard Law School (in the class a year before Janet Reno), we participated in moot court, a mock tribunal in where law students argue hypothetical cases. On the other hand, when a point is moot (not mute, please!), it has been drained of any practical significance. Does Mayor Filner mean that the Jacobs proposal is now merely academic and settled, or is that idea still open to debate?
The answer is that, in Bob Filner’s eyes, the Jacobs plan is no longer relevant to the current discussion. Moot started out as a noun meaning a hypothetical case to be argued, but the adjective hypothetical (“academic, conjectural”) has taken over as the predominant meaning. Nowadays, to use moot in the sense of “open to argument” is confusing and ambiguous.
I’m pleased to share some more random thoughts from the Wide and Wonderful World of Words:
America loves language vagaries: We ship by truck and send cargo by ship. Our nose can run and our feet can smell. We drive in a parkway and park in a driveway.
The roller coaster saga of Tiger Woods has added a more intricate switcheroo: He who drives well on a fairway may not fare well on a driveway.
For my first 59 years I lived primarily in Philadelphia, and Concord, N.H. Now I’m a proud resident of San Diego. When Simone and I moved, we trekked from a seaboard to a coast.
There’s a logical reason why the U.S. eastern shoreline is usually referred to as the “Atlantic seaboard” while the Pacific side is called “the coast.” The East was settled early by the English, and seaboard is an English mariners’ term. The West Coast drew much of its nomenclature from the Spanish, and coast, from costa, is a Spanish word.
One of the many reasons to love America’s Finest City is the number and variety of its Chinese buffets. With my prodigious appetite, any buffet that I visit suffers a financial loss. Here are the last six messages I’ve received in the fortune cookies that greet the end of my meals in Chinese restaurants:
• You display the wonderful traits of charm and courtesy.
• You are guided by silent love and friendship around you.
• Your emotional nature is strong and sensitive.
• Patience is the best remedy for every trouble.
• Your home is a pleasant place from which you draw happiness.
• Appearances can be deceiving.
What do these statements have in common? They’re not fortunes; they’re words of wisdom or statements about character. Have a look at the strips of paper you find in your next fortune cookies, and I believe you’ll see that half of them won’t tell your fortune. That’s why I call them unfortune cookies.
By the way, fortune cookies are entirely an American invention, created for Chinese restaurants in America. You will not find them in establishments in China.
Linguists estimate the existence of 6,800 languages spoken around the world. Half of them are spoken by fewer than 2,500 speakers each. But a language needs at least 100,000 speakers to pass from generation to generation. As a result, by the end of this century from half to 90 percent of the world’s current languages will become extinct.
Most people think the first words heard over a telephone were “Mr. Watson, come here, I need you.” Not true. The first words were “Your call is important to us. Please continue to hold. Your call will be answered in the order it was received, and it may be monitored for quality assurance.”
Please send your questions and comments about language to email@example.com