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Every Little Helps

Sunday, January 11, 2004

Meaning-inversion


My idol, Safire, has an article on words and phrases that have come to mean their opposite. There are many; one example is "crummy" or "crumby." According to my handy word-origins book, "crumby" used to mean "creme de la creme" -- through sarcastic use, however, it came to mean the opposite. (Similarly, "Gift," in German, began life the same way as the English word, but, over time, came to mean "poison.")

One such word that bugs me to no end is "moot." As in a moot point. (Or, as I've recently seen, "a mute point.")
When you moot a point, you set it out to discuss -- you table it. Which has its own problems -- one side of the pond, you table a question and thereby bring it up for discussion; the other side, you table it for another day -- a difference, I hear, that has caused a few arguments and many hurt feelings, when one side feels ignored by the very action by which the other meant to involve them. "Moot" seems to have followed the path of "table," and nearly every use of the word today has a moot point being a point that is no longer discussable or is silly to discuss further.

But I suppose it's silly and I'm fighting a losing battle, much like certain people who fight the non-literal use of "literally." Or like an English teacher who would be distressed to see the way I write, after making us memorize (word-for-word) dozens of comma rules, hardly any of which are followed by the Wall Street Journal or the Harvard University Press.

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