MOOT.

I’ve always found it interesting that there are two substantially different interpretations of the adjective moot, most commonly found in the phrase “a moot point.” One takes it as meaning ‘debatable, arguable,’ and the other ‘academic, not worth taking seriously.’ The AHD has a good summary of the history in its usage note:

The adjective moot is originally a legal term going back to the 1500s. It derives from the noun moot in its sense of a hypothetical case argued as an exercise by law students. The noun moot in turn goes back to an Old English word meaning “a meeting, especially one convened for legislative or judicial purposes.” Consequently, a moot question is one that is arguable or open to debate. But in the mid-1800s, people also began to look at the hypothetical side of moot as its essential meaning, and they started to use the word to mean “of no significance or relevance.” Thus, a moot point, however debatable, is one that has no practical value. A number of critics have objected to this usage, but in our 2008 survey 83 percent of the Usage Panel accepted it in the sentence The nominee himself chastised the White House for failing to do more to support him, but his concerns became moot when a number of Republicans announced that they, too, would oppose the nomination. This represents a significant increase over the 59 percent that accepted the same sentence in 1988. Writers who use this word should be sure that the context makes clear which sense of moot is meant. It is often easier to use another word, such as debatable or irrelevant.

Gabe Doyle at Motivated Grammar has a new post on the topic in which he presents it as a US/UK difference, saying “It seems that moot means something different depending on which side of the Atlantic it’s being used on” and calling the sense “a point that was just generally open for debate, whether or not it had practical consequences” the “British usage.” But in the comments, Kemp says “I’m British, and I’ve never heard of what you refer to as the British meaning of the word. Maybe it’s our exposure to American TV and movies, but I’ve always known moot to refer to a point that, debatable or not, has no real impact on anything,” and dw concurs: “I spent the first 20+ years of my life in England, and, like Kemp, I am only familiar with the ‘American’ meaning of the word.” Then Flesh-eating Dragon weighs in with a complaint from Down Under: “For some reason Australian dictionaries generally record only the ‘debatable’ sense (at least in pocket editions) which is odd because in my experience that sense is not used here — we only use the ‘academic’ sense.” All this roused my curiosity, so I turn the floor over to the Varied Reader: are you familiar with both senses, and which do you use yourself? Obviously it would be useful to add which variety of our far-flung common language you speak.


I can’t resist passing along this comment from Gabe’s thread, posted by Bill Davis:

I loved the Friends episode where Joey and Rachel have this exchange:
Joey: All right, Rach. The big question is, “does he like you?” All right? Because if he doesn’t like you, this is all a moo point.
Rachel: Huh. A moo point?
Joey: Yeah, it’s like a cow’s opinion. It just doesn’t matter. It’s moo.
Rachel: Have I been living with him for too long, or did that all just make sense?

Which of course could bring to mind Mu, if one has that sort of mind.

Comments

  1. I’m from Ireland and always considered the U.S. usage the only usage…never heard of the alternative ‘British’ meaning.

  2. rootlesscosmo says:

    I recall having seen “the point was mooted,” that is, “made a subject of debate,” in British sources, but I couldn’t supply a citation.

  3. I use the word to mean ‘debatable’ or ‘uncertain’.
    Australian, but possibly atypical.

  4. Australian: familiar with both meanings. I’d tend to interpret “a moot point” as “a debatable point” and “has become moot” as “is no longer relevant”. No particular preference for either interpretation.

  5. Interesting, I just realized that I always mentally linked it with “mute”. The way you switch the sound off on a cell phone, the same way you tune out of an irrelevant discussion? :)

  6. Also Australian, I agree with Matt_M – there are two distinct usages, each of them clear to me.

  7. I’ve always understood it to mean “debatable” – never realized it could mean anything else until the subject came up on (I think) LL.

  8. Electric Dragon says:

    British: a search of my work email archive reveals I’ve used it 6 times in the past 6 years, every time as an adjective to mean “no longer relevant” or just “irrelevant”. (Nobody else in said archive has ever used the word, so draw from that whatever conclusions you wish.) I might use it as a verb in the sense of “bring up for discussion” – “he mooted the idea of reversing the polarity of the neutron flow”, but I’d be far more likely to just say “brought up” or “raised”.

  9. Rupert Goodwins says:

    UK native for best part of fifty years, and while I know its history I’ve only used or understood moot as ‘debatable but not germane to the subject in hand’. With one exception – I once belonged to a drinking/talking club that held Friday Moots. It was that sort of club.

  10. Terry Collmann says:

    British: never used “moot” to mean anything but “debatable”, never noticed “moot” used in British English to mean anything but “debatable”, always regarded the “academic” meaning as purely American. A quick check on Google News for “moot” in UK news sources suggests the Guardian regularly uses it to mean “not worth debating”, but most other news sources stick to the traditional meaning of “debatable”. CBA to do a more thorough review of usage right now, I’m afraid …

  11. Using the word academic to define moot is a good choice: Language Log on the ambiguity of academic

  12. American living in Britain. The “no longer relevant” sense is the one I use, but this has led to confusion at work so I tend to avoid the word altogether (also avoid talking about ‘tabling’ something for similar reasons).

  13. Also Australian, I agree with Matt_M – there are two distinct usages, each of them clear to me.
    I’m only half-Australian, so while I agree that there are two distinct usages, I always get them mixed up.

  14. South African English now in USA (I’m multilingual, can speak several kinds of English).
    I’ve used the word in both senses, though this may not be evidential since my father was an English teacher and well aware of both senses.
    Evidence for the English sense from PG Wodehouse, A Damsel in Distress,
    “It is an exceedingly moot point – and one which his associates of the servants’ hall would have combated hotly – whether Albert possessed a soul.”
    Then again Melville uses it the same way,
    “The uncertain, unsettled condition of this science of Cetology is in the very vestibule attested by the fact, that in some quarters it still remains a moot point whether a whale be a fish.”
    though of course this is old enough the new meaning may not yet have emerged.
    Evidence for the American sense from the lawyers, who appear to have a whole class of objects “order granting motion to dismiss for mootness”.
    I do remember an underground guide to (the S. African university I attended) which listed “Lawyers’ Moot Room” as “an extremely silly place”.

  15. also, too – I have emails from my Indian colleagues using the American sense. One might have expected the ‘British’ sense but perhaps like me they are assimilating assiduously..

  16. Originally British, long time USian: This is word I do my best to avoid because (a) I can never remember what it’s supposed to mean, and (b) you can be pretty sure your listener will assume the opposite of what you thought you meant.
    Does that make it a moot word in my vocabulary?

  17. I’m going to try to work “dismiss for mootness” into my conversation wherever possible.

  18. British. I always use it in the sense of “debatable” and haven’t really noticed the other sense, until now. I did read a lot of P.G Wodehouse in my youth, so maybe that’s why. I recall that his plots abound in points that are exceedingly moot, and that these invariably furrow the Wooster brow (though, of course, the joke is often about how trivial they are).

  19. Is the meaning situationally determined? For me (Canadian) the phrase “a moot point” means a point not worth the effort of debating. But a “moot court” is a place where lawyers in training practice their craft by debating and coming to conclusions.
    I would never use “moot” as a substitute for “debatable.”

  20. But a “moot court” is a place where lawyers in training practice their craft by debating and coming to conclusions.
    Yes, nobody disputes that; it’s when you take the adjective out of that fixed phrase (used mainly by lawyers) that the confusion arises.

  21. jamessal says:

    American here. Only ever heard the “irrelevant” usage, such that I was shocked some time ago when I found that the primary definition at Dictionary.com was (and remains) “debatable.”

  22. dearieme says:

    The British usage not only means that the point is debatable, but sometimes implies that it is central to the debate. But the young learn their English off the telly so will incline to the US use. Ignorant fuckers.

  23. As an American, I wasn’t aware of the “debatable” meaning before reading this. However, I think the verb meaning bring up for discussion (the possibility was mooted) is at least familiar to me.

  24. OP Tipping says:

    I don’t think it is a regionally divided usage. From my reading and hearing, both meanings are used in the UK and the USA, with the “debatable” meaning being used mainly in more formal circumstances and perhaps not known to everyone.
    That’s how it is in Australia. For mine, I only used it to mean “debatable” but because of the ambiguity, I tend to avoid using the word these days.

  25. British, but have lived in North America for eight years. “Moot” in the UK I always took to mean “debatable”. I definitely noticed the shift to “irrelevant” when I moved to Canada and the US. A fairly clear Brit / NA distinction in my view.
    Was considerably irritated by an (English) boss who pronounced, and clearly confused it with, “mute”, i.e. “a mute point”. Argh.

  26. p.s. I’ve Tolkien to thank for his “entmoot” teaching me the etymology.

  27. Athel Cornish-Bowden says:

    Until I read Gabe Doyle’s article it had never occurred to me that “moot” was used other than to mean debatable, despite having worked three years in the US and visited many times. I don’t know if I’ve ever used it in writing, but I may use it from time to time in speech.

  28. mollymooly says:

    I am, sadly, liable to assume that any usage not native to me must ipso facto be restricted to the opposite side of the Atlantic.
    I learnt “moot point”, meaning “point of contention”, from my Irish mammy. Later I inferred that US TV “moot” = UK soccer commentator “academic”. I personally haven’t had much recourse to the word in either sense.

  29. In Australia we often hear “mute point”. I thought that misconstrual might have influenced people’s understanding of the term – or vice versa, perhaps. Which Australian dictionaries were sampled for the observation that they record only one of the senses, I wonder?

  30. Graham Asher says:

    My data point: I am a 55-year-old Englishman and was unaware of the US meaning until about two years ago when I started noticing it on web sites. I assume (possibly mistakenly – I haven’t researched this) that the US usage is more recent, and stems from a reinterpretation from ‘debatable’ to ‘irrelevant’.

  31. dearieme says:

    It’s rather reminiscent of the curious American usage of “to table” regarding a motion in a committee, or the like.

  32. We Yanks, of course, find the UK usage curious.

  33. @Noetica: “Which Australian dictionaries were sampled for the observation that they record only one of the senses, I wonder?
    I’ve looked in pocket editions of the Macquarie and the Australian Oxford. Each of which only records the “debatable” sense.
    Just in case there’s a generational difference, I’m 34. And never heard of the “debatable” sense before I read about it on linguistics blogs.
    Adrian, aka Flesh-eating Dragon.

  34. It’s rather reminiscent of the curious American usage of “to table” regarding a motion in a committee, or the like.
    We Yanks, of course, find the UK usage curious.

    Noah Webster could have done everyone a favo[u]r by confining his spelling changes to these words that have different meanings.

  35. Mid-19th century? Most interesting. I’d noticed the change from “debatable” to “irrelevant” but thought it had happened in about the 1970s. The recency illusion strikes again.

  36. Incidentally, this reminds me of the (specifically British, as far as I’ve noticed) shift in the meaning of “arguable” from “defensible” to “disputable.”

  37. This thread called to mind this ancient SNL bit featuring the Rev. Jesse Jackson: The Question is Moot. Naturally, he’s using it in the American sense.

  38. Bathrobe says:

    This reminds me of the word ‘problematic’, which in one of its meanings is similar to ‘moot’ (debatable; open to doubt). The literal meaning of ‘posing a problem’ seems to have become much commoner than it used to be, if my admittedly hazy instincts are correct.

  39. Bathrobe says:

    Tell me, Hat, does проблематичный in Russian really follow all four senses of ‘problematic’ in English (posing a problem, debatable, unresolved, uncertain in outcome), as Wiktionary suggests it does?

  40. Not sure what you mean. There’s no reference to Russian on the linked page as far as I can see. Проблематичный is less common than проблематический; they both mean either ‘still undecided’ or ‘dubious, unlikely’ (according to Ozhegov).

  41. Similarly Ushakov.

  42. Bathrobe says:

    You have to click on “Show” to see the suggested translations. проблематичный is given for all four senses.

  43. Ah. In that case, I think somebody was just winging it.

  44. I’ve looked in pocket editions of the Macquarie and the Australian Oxford. Each of which only records the “debatable” sense.
    Interesting! I am short on short dictionaries, but I collect big ones. SOED (2007) at “moot, adjective“:

    1 Open to argument; debatable, doubtful. Freq. qualifying point. M16.

    2 Law. Of a case, issue, etc.: of no practical significance or relevance; abstract, academic. M19.

    Now look at the entry for the adjective in the current Oxford Dictionary of English (2nd edition, 2005):

    1. Subject to debate, dispute or uncertainty: whether the temperature rise was mainly due to the greenhouse effect was a moot point.

    2. N. Amer. having little or no practical relevance: the whole matter is becoming increasingly moot.

    !
    The New Oxford American Dictionary (2nd edition, 2005):

    subject to debate, dispute, or uncertainty, and typically not admitting of a final decision [example ...] • having no practical significance, typically because the subject is too uncertain to allow a decision: it is moot whether the phrase should be treated as a metaphor or not.

    Good; connects the senses rationally. But I think the example given for the second sense does not distinguish it well. It is moot whether moot there means “undecidable” or “of no consequence”.
    The big Collins (2005, “UK edition”), with its only adjectival sense:

    subject or open to debate: a moot point

    And the big Macquarie (2003, “revised 3rd edition”, circa 2240 pages; deferred to as the Australian dictionary; founded on an inferior American one a few decades ago, but much developed since then; I don’t like it!) gives this for the adjective:

    subject to argument or discussion; debatable, doubtful: a moot point

    Contrast for example Webster’s New World Dictionary (2006):

    1. subject to or open for discussion or debate; debatable
    2. not worthy of consideration or discussion because it has been resolved or no longer needs to be resolved

    Clearly the “moot-court” sense (importing triviality because the court’s deliberations have no consequences, being merely a matter of practice for students) is available to all. So why has the “second sense” been shepherded into the Norteamericano fold? Yet there it is, even in OED:

    2. N. Amer. (orig. Law). Of a case, issue, etc.: having no practical significance or relevance; abstract, academic.
    Now the usual sense in North America.

    The Australian People Have a Right to Know.®

  45. Danish, grown up with US sitcoms.
    I’m only aware of both meanings because I’ve discussion like this before. To me it always meant “of no consequence”, “something that can be ignored”.

  46. I have not noticed the confusion with “mute”, but I know someone (in Rhode Island) who has noticed it often.

  47. Born in England, moved to the US at 21:
    My sense of the word (as an adjective) is that it means irrelevant, but in a special sense: that the thing that it qualifies has been overtaken by events. That one can only talk about it now.
    However, as a verb, it means to bring its object up for discussion.

  48. I also agree that the usage note in the AHD5 is excellent — much better than anything in the entries for moot in either the Oxford Dictionary of English (which agrees with Gabe Doyle in claiming the “irrelevant” sense to be “NORTH AMERICAN”) or the The New Oxford American Dictionary (which classifies the “irrelevant” sense as a “SPECIAL USAGE” and also claims, wrongly to my mind, that the irrelevancy “typically” owes to the subject’s being “too uncertain to allow a decision”). These other dictionaries are the ones already downloaded onto Amazon’s Kindle when you buy it; their entries for moot, however, are the only ones I’ve yet come across which I haven’t found considerably more informative than the corresponding entry in the AHD5. Mainly, they both almost certainly have more extensive etymologies, as well as more etymologies overall (almost, I say, because I haven’t read any of the dictionaries systematically, as if for a review — not that I’m qualified to write one — I’ve merely used them all casually, though often).
    Returning to moot, this part of the AHD5 usage note –

    The noun moot in turn goes back to an Old English word meaning “a meeting, especially one convened for legislative or judicial purposes.” Consequently, a moot question is one that is arguable or open to debate. But in the mid-1800s, people also began to look at the hypothetical side of moot as its essential meaning, and they started to use the word to mean “of no significance or relevance.”

    – this shift in what some people took to be the essential meaning, reminded me of prodigal, a word that Bryan Garner and some other earlier prescriptivists claim to have undergone a similar shift in interpretation, a shift owing of course to the biblical parable, toward “wandering afar and coming home repentant, with no connotation left of squandering money [Garner's Modern American Usage, 3rd edition].” None of the dictionaries mentioned above contains a definition devoid of profligacy, however, and Merriam Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage, taking issue with usage guides written in the 1970s and 80s, claims that the usage described by Garner, if it doesn’t also allude somewhat directly to the parable, is extremely rare. For what it’s worth, and much as I dislike Garner and the rest of the prescriptivist canon, my experience of the word chimes most with Garner’s entry.
    Below are Garner’s entry and the relevant section of MWDEU’s.

    [Garner]
    To be prodigal is to be prone to wasteful spending, especially to frittering away one’s savings on hedonistic indulgence. In the biblical parable, the prodigal son leaves home, squanders his inheritance, almost starves to death, and is still greeted with open arms when he returns to his father.
    Most people today associate prodigal with the part of the parable about wandering afar and coming home repentant, with no connotation left of squandering money—e.g.:

    • “Tucker is another of the Royals’ prodigal sons. . . . [T]he Royals traded him to Atlanta for Dye. Tucker then swung the bat for the Cincinnati Reds and the Chicago Cubs before the Royals made a trade to bring him back this year.” Kendrick Blackwood, “You Gotta Love These Guys!” Pitch Weekly (Kansas City), 25 Apr. 2002, at 1.
    • “Our hero is a prodigal son (David Arquette) returned home to revive the family gold mine and rekindle an old flame with the foxy lady sheriff (Kari Wuhrer).” Brian Miller, “Scream,” Seattle Weekly, 18 July 2002, at 78.

    The word is unrelated to prodigy and prodigious, both of which today generally carry positive connotations.
    LANGUAGE-CHANGE INDEX prodigal in the sense “returning”: Stage 3**
    Garner, Bryan (2009-07-28). Garner’s Modern American Usage (p. 661). Oxford University Press. Kindle Edition.
    **[From the prefatory matter] Stage 3 [of Garner's LANGUAGE CHANGE INDEX]: The form becomes commonplace even among many well-educated people but is still avoided in careful usage.

    —————————

    [MWDEU]

    Bryson 1984 and Harper 1975, 1985 say that many people think prodigal means “wandering” or “tending to stray” because they associate it with the New Testament parable of the prodigal son who, having received his inheritance, “took his journey into a far country, and there wasted his substance with riotous living” (Luke 15:13, AV). The son returned, repentant, and was welcomed back by his father, who killed the fatted calf in celebration.
    Our files do not show the adjective being used to mean “wandering.” The usage, if it exists, may be primarily oral, or perhaps the idea has been oversimplified in the usage books. The OED includes a sense under the noun prodigal that covers the many meanings the word can have when it is used in allusion to the parable. The examples there all reflect one aspect or another of the parable—especially that of the repentant sinner welcomed home. We have some recent allusive examples, but all are for the noun or for the adjective in the compounds prodigal son and prodigal daughter.

    ▶ … stared at the prodigal who had come home to her —Priscilla Johnson McMillan, excerpt in Book Digest, February 1978
    ▶ … she was received into her mother’s household as a prodigal daughter —John Updike, N.Y. Times Book Rev., 23 Feb. 1986
    ▶ … Spielberg has donned the hair shirt and paid his dues. It’s time for Hollywood to embrace its prodigal son —Peter Travers, Rolling Stone, 24 Mar. 1994

    These uses echo the parable and do not necessarily imply extravagance or wastefulness. Such use dates back to Shakespeare in 1596 and Ben Jonson in 1601 and, while apparently not especially common, would appear to be entirely legitimate. But it seems not to be the use Harper and Bryson are talking about.
    Merriam-Webster (2010-07-27). Merriam-Webster’s English Usage Dictionary (Kindle Locations 38992-39009). Merriam-Webster, Inc.. Kindle Edition.

  49. Ok, the lower MWDEU citations are interesting because there’s no sense of the sons having been profligate. But there is no LANGUAGE-CHANGE INDEX prodigal in the sense “returning”: Stage 3, as Garner says. commonplace even among many well-educated people but is still avoided in careful usage – what, are they making this stuff up as they go along? Prodigal son is a phrase that means “returning”, because of the Bible parable, but that’s different from saying everyone’s going around using the word prodigal to mean “returning”. I’ve never heard anyone use prodigal without the son or daughter, or, like the MW citation “stared at the prodigal who had come home to her”, where its use could make sense without that reference.

  50. AJP, if I had to place a bet, I’d say you and MWDEU are (as usual) probably more on point than Garner.
    Prodigal son is a phrase that means “returning”, because of the Bible parable, but that’s different from saying everyone’s going around using the word prodigal to mean “returning”. I’ve never heard anyone use prodigal without the son or daughter, or, like the MW citation “stared at the prodigal who had come home to her”, where its use could make sense without that reference.
    About a decade ago, I would have used it that way. The Prodigal Son is my mom’s favorite biblical parable, and hearing it often growing up, I inferred the “returning” definition sans any sense of wastefulness. It was only after I became serious about educating myself, and looked the word up in dictionaries, that I adjusted my own usage.
    what, are they making this stuff up as they go along?
    Probably. They do it all the time. For me it was like going to a psychic and having the psychic go out on a limb with something specific and getting it exactly right; it was freaky — lucky — nothing more: it didn’t convert my to quackery. But I would have felt remiss not including that detail. Honest men don’t fear including the lone wild data point just because it supports the work of quacks, however annoyingly influential they might be.

  51. hearing it often growing up, I inferred the “returning” definition sans any sense of wastefulness
    Yes, I think I did too.
    Honest men don’t fear including the lone wild data point just because it supports the work of quacks, however annoyingly influential they might be.
    It’s in the presentation. Take George Orwell, Mr Honesty in the flesh; he didn’t lie (as far as I know), but he did always make the totally best case. It’s the technique of a trial lawyer. He even looked honest, except for the pencil moustache.
    The Prodigal Son is my mom’s favorite biblical parable
    That I believe. Me too, I played the prodigal son in a class play, when I was eight (no separation of church and State in England). In this version, I (he) bought all my (his) friends presents, he wasn’t such a bad guy when he was prodigal; sort of a biblical version of manic-depressive.

  52. Petrus Augustinus says:

    The only ‘moot’ I know is the ‘Ent moot’ (the council of Ents) in The Lord of the Rings. Having read the etymological history, it’s obvious that the great Tolkien uses it according to the Old English meaning.

  53. It’s in the presentation.
    I hope you don’t think mine was in any way fishy.
    George Orwell, Mr Honesty in the flesh; he didn’t lie (as far as I know)
    I’m forgetting where I read it, but some of his biographers think he did. One biography at least casts doubt on the crucial moment in his essay “A Hanging” when a prisoner walking to the gallows steps to avoid a puddle; Bernard Crick wrote in his 1980 biography George Owell: A Life that — to quote Wikipedia — “No evidence exists to show where and when he witnessed an execution during his time in Burma.” Orwell also omitted trips to stay with wealthy friends during the time depicted in his memoir Down and Out in Paris and London — little vacations from poverty which couldn’t better epitomize the concept of lying by omission.

  54. The only ‘moot’ I know is the ‘Ent moot’ (the council of Ents) in The Lord of the Rings.
    I mentioned this post to my mom, and that was the first thing that popped into her head, too. Wonderful passage.

  55. Thus spake Pollock and Maitland in their History of English Law Before the Time of Edward I:

    Down to the end of the middle ages a few Old English terms perdured which, at least as technical terms, we have since lost: English “domes-men” might still “deem dooms in a moot hall”; but the number of such terms was small and the blight of archaism was on them.

    But if they are quoting anyone with those quotation marks, Google cannot identify the source.

  56. but some of his biographers think he did.
    Yeah, wasn’t this where we came in (at Language Log)?
    little vacations from poverty which couldn’t better epitomize the concept of lying by omission.
    That’s what I meant by using the technique of a trial lawyer & making his best case. I can’t remember him actually lying-lying (that sounds like a phrase from the days of Watergate or Clinton’s blowjob).
    “No evidence exists to show where and when he witnessed an execution during his time in Burma.”
    I respect B. Crick’s judgement as much as I do Orwell’s, but a) Burmese Days is a novel, so I must be missing something, and b) Orwell was living before we accepted a blurring of the previously sharp line between fiction and non-fiction. If he were writing today we wouldn’t hold him to such rigorous standards. Or rather, perhaps we would, but today Orwell would have more ways to present work where he didn’t want the truth to get in the way of a good story.

  57. Yeah, wasn’t this where we came in (at Language Log)?
    Long time ago now, huh? Some rough years between now and then. It’s been great having you as a friend this whole time, although who would have predicted that outcome after our first exchange!? I believe our tones kept the debate terse, kept it from bearing much fruit. I also believe, quite firmly, that we could better handle it now. ;-)
    Burmese Days is a novel, so I must be missing something
    Crick was suspicious of the veracity of Orwell’s essay, “A Hanging,” and I’m not sure what that has to do with Burmese Days. As I’m sure you know, many of Orwell’s essays, including arguably his best and most famous, “Shooting an Elephant” (though the veracity of that essay, too, has been called into question) took place in Burma. That is, I’m missing what you might be missing.
    Orwell was living before we accepted a blurring of the previously sharp line between fiction and non-fiction
    Doesn’t that support my point? Essays were supposed to be — and to my mind still are (that line you mentioned is still sharp to me) — factual. If you want to insert invented details, call it fiction. After all, fiction writers often use knowledge and details from their real lives to add verisimilitude and insight to their stories and novels. Why should some writers fabricating crucial details to make political or artistic points, or to make their work more interesting overall, get to categorize their stories as non-fiction, especially considering that category sells much better than fiction?
    If he were writing today we wouldn’t hold him to such rigorous standards.
    I would. And I don’t think I’m alone.
    today Orwell would have more ways to present work where he didn’t want the truth to get in the way of a good story
    And still call them non-fiction? What ways? James Frey and David Sedaris would like to know.

  58. And I don’t think I’m alone.
    Certainly not; I wrote about this issue almost exactly nine years ago, and I haven’t changed my mind.
    So when was this fabled Duel on the Bridge at Language Log? Can I get a link?

  59. And I don’t think I’m alone.
    Certainly not
    I think it depends on the piece. If you’re writing a news story truthfully explained facts are a requirement. That’s a statement concerning ethics. But Burningbird’s defense of truth (based on lectio difficilior potior) is that the truth makes a better story! And I could argue the opposite, “never let the truth get in the way of a good story”. It’s…moot.
    It’s possible that “Sometimes to tell the truth you have to lie a little,” but I’m quite sure that the number of cases in which it’s true is dwarfed by the number of cases in which somebody is using it as a cover for making things easier on themselves or making themselves look more impressive, the usual reasons for lying.
    If you paint from life, the range of values available to you varies between white paint and black paint. But if you look at a scene in daylight, you can plainly see that sunshine is waaay brighter than white paint on your canvas. In your painting, if you’re going to show the brightness of daylight, you have to make all the other values darker (sometimes really much darker) than they appear; “white” in a landscape is rendered in your painting as gray – you lie with all your colors & values just so that you can show the truth of the daylight. That’s the case with almost every figurative painting that exists.
    I’m not sure what that has to do with Burmese Days.
    Nothing. I was mixed up when I mentioned Burmese Days, obviously it has nothing to do with Shooting an Elephant. Would I rather Orwell had published Shooting an Elephant as fiction if it didn’t actually happen, put it in the third person, maybe? No. Does it change my opinion of his work? Yes, it’s good to know he’s doing it, so I don’t use what he’s written as an example of what happened. But the work in this case would have been weaker if it were just a story.
    especially considering that category sells much better than fiction?
    Now you’re saying the writers are lying for money. Obviously, I’m against that on ethical grounds.
    today Orwell would have more ways to present work where he didn’t want the truth to get in the way of a good story
    And still call them non-fiction? What ways? James Frey and David Sedaris would like to know.
    No, I’m saying he wouldn’t have to call it non-fiction. Nowadays you’ve got Truman Capote & co. and the non-fiction novel. I don’t know where Sedaris comes into this, is there some scandal I don’t know about? Jim, with your book, I definitely don’t think it would have been improved by embellishing the truth (though obviously whether a character’s called ‘Wendy’ or ‘Phyllis’ doesn’t make any difference to the average reader, so, even there, there are levels of the truth that are more or less important).
    I confess I haven’t got this all sorted in my own mind, and I expect there are inconsistencies in what I’ve written. However, I don’t think “the truth” is nearly as clear cut as you two make it appear.

  60. However, I don’t think “the truth” is nearly as clear cut as you two make it appear.
    Oh, I don’t think it’s clear-cut at all; like most things involving human beings, it’s extremely messy. But one of the things I’ve figured out as I’ve gotten older is that many times you need to take sides in a messy situation and deal with the mess as it arises, not worrying excessively about consistency. Another example: unions often overreach and reward conformity and indolence, and yet I am automatically on the side of workers against bosses, giving a good swift kick (mentally) to the people who let down the side but never once being tempted to soften my attitude toward the bosses and their lackeys, the Thatchers and Reagans. (Forgive the lapse into politics, but its just us regulars here at the end of the moot thread, and I trust no horses will be frightened.)

  61. many times you need to take sides in a messy situation and deal with the mess as it arises, not worrying excessively about consistency
    Yes, that’s a lesson worth learning, and unions are a good example.
    Jim is going to find our Language Log duel. I remember my point as being very trivial and that he won, as always.
    I see that when I wrote ‘Wendy’ or ‘Phyllis’ doesn’t make any difference to the average reader, so, even there, there are levels of the truth that are more or less important, I ought to have acknowledged that Jim made it quite clear in the book that these were assumed names, to protect the innocent, so there was no lie there at all.

  62. Jim is going to find our Language Log duel.
    Here’s the LL post; the comment that started our of course long, long-quashed beef was left by AJP on September 2, 2008 @ 10:44 am under the name Polly Glot.

  63. our of course long, long-quashed beef
    You mean to say it’s now moot?

  64. I don’t know where Sedaris comes into this, is there some scandal I don’t know about?
    Yeah, I didn’t read much about it, but I remember that he was accused of inventing not just trivial details in his comedic, non-fiction stories, but crucial ones, like his grandmother suddenly biting him at her nursing home, sinking her teeth deep into Sedaris’s hand, when no such thing happened at all.
    ["Shooting an Elephant"] would have been weaker if it were just a story.
    I’m not sure I agree, but if that were the case, then that would be a problem with the essay, not the public’s unsophisticated views on truth — on what should be categorized as fiction and non-fiction.
    If you paint from life, the range of values available to you varies between white paint and black paint. But if you look at a scene in daylight, you can plainly see that sunshine is waaay brighter than white paint on your canvas. In your painting, if you’re going to show the brightness of daylight, you have to make all the other values darker (sometimes really much darker) than they appear; “white” in a landscape is rendered in your painting as gray – you lie with all your colors & values just so that you can show the truth of the daylight. That’s the case with almost every figurative painting that exists.
    This is a well-written, clever metaphor — I enjoyed reading it. But ultimately I don’t find it germane or persuasive.

  65. Nowadays you’ve got Truman Capote & co. and the non-fiction novel.
    The point is, they’re honest about what they’re doing, these authors of non-fiction novels. I’ve only dipped into In Cold Blood, but I devoured The Executioner’s Song. Mailer was totally upfront about the the ways in which his imagination played a part. I don’t see what that has to do with people publishing their work as non-fiction and then, with no disclaimer, adding juicy fictional passages.

  66. Oh, I don’t think it’s clear-cut at all; like most things involving human beings, it’s extremely messy. But one of the things I’ve figured out as I’ve gotten older is that many times you need to take sides in a messy situation and deal with the mess as it arises, not worrying excessively about consistency. Another example: unions often overreach and reward conformity and indolence, and yet I am automatically on the side of workers against bosses, giving a good swift kick (mentally) to the people who let down the side but never once being tempted to soften my attitude toward the bosses and their lackeys, the Thatchers and Reagans.
    While I generally agree with the political point, I don’t think the question of how honestly a writer presents his work is nearly that complicated. I wrote a memoir, and while writing it I was tempted constantly to embellish, and it was obvious what would be right to put on the page and what would be wrong. In one of the chapters about a drug deal gone bad potentially turning into a drive-by shooting, my character — me — leaves a motel room for a few minutes; as a writer, I needed to indicate that some time had passed, so I inserted a scene setting detail about a bum shuffling past rooms, mumbling to himself. I had seen a bum doing precisely what I described him doing at some point around one of the countless motels I frequented in California, but not on the day I was depicting. I was exhausted, trying to a meet a deadline, and at the time I persuaded myself that the detail was so insignificant that it was worth fudging a bit for the artistry, for the scene setting device to indicate time having passed.
    I was wrong. And it still eats at me, because for all the flaws I now see in the book, as a more experienced writer, I remain proud of having written a truthful memoir, digging up painful, shameful memories and recording them as best as I could remember — as honestly — tempting as it was to put myself in a better light, to make myself seem either tougher or less craven than I actually was, or to raise the stakes in the action, to make the felons I was running with, the ones who scared me and sometimes turned on me, seem more impressively badass than they really were. Looking back, I see a giddy kid with a book deal who resisted admirably — flawlessly save that one detail — and you have no idea how much I wish that I could go back and rewrite that one small paragraph; that I could excise that detail from every copy in print: that I could just say “flawlessly.”
    It’s hard to be an honest writer, and writers know when they’re not being honest. So when I hear mealy mouthed excuses from writers with a decade or more older than I am — excuses peppered with perfectly lame philosophy — frankly it pisses me off. It pisses me off more than child molestation — not because it’s worse behavior, obviously, but because it’s behavior I understand. I’ve never been tempted to molest a child, so I have no idea what it’s like to be a molester, to have my brain wired that way. Of course, molesters should be removed from society to keep children as safe as we can, but to me an act of molestation is a serious tragedy. It makes me deeply sad. Lying writers are pissants who don’t, comparatively, do any realy harm. But I understand them, and I know they deserve a good smack.

  67. Burningbird’s defense of truth (based on lectio difficilior potior) is that the truth makes a better story! And I could argue the opposite, “never let the truth get in the way of a good story”.
    If it’s presented dishonestly, I’m not only willing to get in the way of a good story — I’m eager to beat it with a pipe. Admittedly, though, I’m kind of an extremist on this topic. I have trouble letting even spoken hyperbole slide; at dinner parties, it turns me right off. And my better half does tease me.

  68. ‘The truth makes a better story’ is a dissolute attitude to life, in my opinion.
    Back after lunch.

  69. He’s not eating lunch at all, I bet.

  70. I may have had some salade niçoise left over from Monday night – damned good on Monday, a bit tired today – and a Norwegian brown-goat-cheese sandwich
    or
    I may have had a cup of tea with Alma and her horse outside the house; and then gone for a short slightly scary ride, all the time worried that Betty might bolt, because she does bolt quite often
    or
    I might have done both
    or
    I might have done neither.

  71. This is a well-written, clever metaphor — I enjoyed reading it. But ultimately I don’t find it germane or persuasive.
    It’s germane to “Sometimes to tell the truth you have to lie a little”. When I painted I always felt I was lying by putting down darker colors than I saw. Persuasive is up to you, of course.

  72. I remain proud of having written a truthful memoir
    See, this is the crux of it. Despite your behavior at dinner parties, I think you’re seeing all this talk of truth from the point of view of a writer, whereas I see it as a reader. If I design a building, I have to worry about it falling down. If you walk into a building, you ought not to have to worry. If it makes you feel better, I’ll gladly scratch out the bum shuffling para in my copy of LDJ, but it wouldn’t make a scrap of difference to me, nor I’ll bet to anyone else reading the book, that that event didn’t take place at that particular moment. It matters to the writer as the thin end of the wedge, the start of a descent into lying lies all over the place. As the reader of your memoir I’m in your hands, and I’m not going to worry about lying until it somehow becomes an issue for me.

  73. Trond Engen says:

    If you’ll pardon a short regression back on topic, I’ll add what I forgot to say the other day, that the revival of the noun moot must have been on its way before Tolkien’s Entmoot. From 1931 it was used for Rover Moots, the international camps for scouts aged 18 and above.

  74. If you’ll pardon a short regression back on topic
    Only if you’re an honest, honest man.

  75. It’s germane to “Sometimes to tell the truth you have to lie a little”.
    Only if you buy the notion that using colors in ways not immediately apparent in a painting is really a lie. It’s a good metaphor, because there are some similarities, but there are also crucial differences; differences I would articulate loudly and sloppily — drunk — if we were eating dinner together.

  76. If they’re crucial, just give me one or two.

  77. Today I’m having slices of apple on bread, and a cup of tea…

  78. …OR AM I???

  79. Help! I’m experiencing ontological angst!

  80. Is ontology covered in Obama’s health plan?

  81. No, but it’s covered under Romneycare here in Massachusetts. You just visit your local licensed philosopher/psychologist; there’s a nominal copay.

  82. If you’re having Kant-related troubles, though, you’re going to have to see a specialist in Boston.

  83. If they’re crucial, just give me one or two.
    I’ll start with just one, but’s a bigg’un: the difference between deception within a work of art — deception that’s part of it — and deception in that work’s advertising material. The first is expected: if every story line ended where an author first hinted it would, there would be no stories worth reading; if all the action and dialogue most heavily emphasized were actually the most important to understanding a movie or TV show, there would be no subtlety in screenwriting or directing. And if every flier advertising a J.M.W. Turner exhibit directed you straight to a section of a museum without a single forgery, with only actual paintings by J.M.W. Turner… well, there wouldn’t really be much of a problem after all. Just like there wouldn’t be a problem if books in the fiction section of a bookstore were fictional and books in the non-fiction section were factual.
    To beat on this particular drum just a bit more than necessary, it’s true, people do expect to be manipulated by artists — but only within the context of the artwork they’ve paid for. If you buy a ticket to a magic show, you are paying to be deceived, but if you show up at the designated time and address and — poof — there’s no magic show but rather some sort of political rally, you’d have right to say, “This isn’t the kind of deception I paid for, and I’d like my money back.”

  84. deception within a work of art — deception that’s part of it
    This of course is what you were doing with your bum shuffling. Not that I even regard that as a deception, but it is within the work.
    there’s no magic show but rather some sort of political rally, you’d have right to say, “This isn’t the kind of deception I paid for
    Magic and politics are great metaphors for fiction and non-fiction, but you can run into problems if you stick labels everywhere. Like, “what is art?” Who the fuck knows, until I see it. If there’s a list of things that have to be true for something to be “art”, or “non-fiction”, or “suitable for family audiences”, then – and assuming anyone’s going to take any notice (which they won’t unless they’re legally obliged to) – you’re asking every creative person to self-censor their work on almost arbitrary grounds. And then there’s nothing to say that anyone else agrees with the rules, even if you think that the rules should be approved by a majority vote (I sure don’t).
    Today, it’s a cup of tea with bread and blackcurrant jam for lunch.*
    * A clue: We knit our own blackcurrant jam. Didn’t we run out recently..?
    No one has yet opined whether my lunches are being truthfully described. Of course, if you do hazard a guess I could lie in my response.

  85. One’s memory is much less reliable than most ones realize. There’s a ton of research on this, but this study seems particularly striking. In this case there are no leading questions, no suggestion, no incentive to distort memories (no book deals, no defendants to convict or exonerate), and an event claimed to be vividly remembered. Yet even in these circumstances, some people remember the event 100% wrong only two years later.
    So, it’s one think for jamessal to think that memoirists should avoid purposeful deceit, and another to think that memoirs should be factually accurate in every detail, as the latter is almost certainly impossible. When memoirs (or any accounts based on personal memories) are found to disagree with a more verifiable account of events, there is usually no reason to conclude that the rememberer is lying; human memory is enough to account for the difference. (Of course sometimes people do lie, and some people are frauds. I don’t think James Frey can use this excuse.)
    One could think that it is plausible to misremember some details about the Challenger explosion, but implausible to remember experiencing entire episodes (watching a hanging, shooting a elephant) that did not happen, but this is also something that seems to happen frequently (here’s an in-the-lab example and a possible in-the-wild example.

  86. (I don’t think this is exactly the issue that jamessal and AJP are discussing, but it’s an important thing to keep in mind when talking about truthfulness in memoirs.)

  87. I entirely agree; the fallibility of memory is one of the most important things I’ve learned (and struggled to assimilate) as I’ve gotten older. It was brought home forcibly to me when my wife and I were showing people where we first met in Grand Central Station and it turned out we remembered meeting on different sides of the famous clock; for each of us the memories were vivid and absolutely reliable… except that they couldn’t both be true.

  88. I agree too about the unreliability of memory, as well — though I do remember reading, I wish I knew where (this is not a joke), something interesting about eyewitness reports: that after an initial group of witnesses recorded wildly divergent versions of an event, another group of witnesses to another event — a group made privy to a report about the initial group (I wish I could be more specific than “made privy”) — turned out to be far more reliable; the point being that people aware of the potential fallibility of their own memories turn out to be more reliable than people who assume their memories are working just fine. I’ll try to find references for all that. I’m aware it’s all pretty vague.
    As for fallible memories and lies in writing that’s supposed to be factual, I don’t see much of a problem for my hard-ass position. I’m sure that there are tons of details I misremembered in my memoir; I’m also sure that none of the chapters hinged on a fabricated event.
    it’s one think for jamessal to think that memoirists should avoid purposeful deceit, and another to think that memoirs should be factually accurate in every detail, as the latter is almost certainly impossible.
    Agreed.
    Of course sometimes people do lie, and some people are frauds. I don’t think James Frey can use this excuse.
    Agreed again. I don’t think Orwell can use that excuse either. He didn’t forget staying at his friends’ houses during the time depicted in Down and Out, and he didn’t misremember that condemned man stepping to avoid a puzzle. The latter would be possible if it weren’t so convenient for his essay. He could have mistaken the prisoner’s height, weight, hair color, or even ethnicity, and I would have no problem; but that puddle is too convenient. It speaks to intent.

  89. Speaks to? I’m always hazy about that phrase. How about, “It indicates intent”?

  90. Wow, you first met in Grand Central? That sounds like a cool story. Tell it sometime?
    In addition to the fallibility of memory, there is also the fallibility of science: a popularized science book may contain any number of non-factual statements that have been superseded by the progress of knowledge, but that does not make them fictional. What is more, an elementary book on physics may talk of summing velocities, or an elementary book on linguistics may talk of phonemes, without being either non-factual or fictional: they are just simplifying for beginners. One can do a great deal of both practical and theoretical with phonemes and Newtonian physics.

  91. deception within a work of art — deception that’s part of it
    This of course is what you were doing with your bum shuffling. Not that I even regard that as a deception, but it is within the work.
    Yes, but that work of art (using the phrase loosely) was labeled non-fiction — outside of the book — and I knew that that detail inside was fictional. I don’t think it’s mortal sin or anything; you put it well when you said that, as a writer, I was thinking if it “as the thin end of the wedge, the start of a descent into lying lies all over the place.” But I brought up that detail not to flagellate myself in public but to show how tempting and easy it is purposefully tweak details to serve your artistic purposes. And in my drunken opinion, that’s a luxury you lose when, to quote Hat in his old post, you sell your story “as something that happened to you personally [in order to] to give it that added authority of personal experience.”

  92. a popularized science book may contain any number of non-factual statements that have been superseded by the progress of knowledge, but that does not make them fictional. What is more, an elementary book on physics may talk of summing velocities, or an elementary book on linguistics may talk of phonemes, without being either non-factual or fictional: they are just simplifying for beginners.
    Or a book on syntax can make someone feel confident in his knowledge of syntax only to be embarrassed on an erudite blog when he drops a few fancy technical terms in a comment and gets corrected. ;-)

  93. If there’s a list of things that have to be true for something to be “art”, or “non-fiction”, or “suitable for family audiences”, then – and assuming anyone’s going to take any notice (which they won’t unless they’re legally obliged to) – you’re asking every creative person to self-censor their work on almost arbitrary grounds.
    We’re not defining art or deciding what’s suitable for family audiences here — I’m not sure how that’s relevant. But as for non-fiction, I have no problem setting a few guidelines even if it cramps a few writers’ styles: don’t lie, don’t tweak; do your best to tell the truth. If you want to tweak for a certain effect, then call it fiction and you can tweak as much as you like, for as much effect as possible. If the effect the writer is aiming for isn’t powerful enough to make a good short story or novel, and if his or her story isn’t interesting enough to sell without a few tweaks, then the writer isn’t good enough to be published. That’s my take, anyway.

  94. This is an interesting movie about truth.

  95. “That sounds like a cool story. Tell it sometime?”
    He did already. You’ve not been paying attention.

  96. Wow, you first met in Grand Central? That sounds like a cool story.
    Not that exciting (except to us): she lived in Massachusetts, I lived in NYC, we’d been corresponding, and when she came to the city by train that was the natural place to meet.

  97. jamessal says:

    Hat’s understandably confused. No offense intended — it happens to the best of us, as Will pointed out. But it was Hat’s father he met at Grand Central. Hat père took our blog host to several restaurants but unfortunately acted like such a lout, ordering Beefeater Gibsons, that father and son were kicked out of each establishment. Then Hat had to catch a train and, sadly, that was the last time he saw his father.

  98. jamessal says:

    Now I’m not certain my version’s more accurate, but it makes for a hell of a story.

  99. Bloody liar.
    Here’s a much better description of The Emperor’s Army Marches On. Don’t bother with that Wikipedia one, it’s rubbish.

  100. jamessal says:

    I will check out the Japanese flick. Maybe Robin can find a way to get it on our Hulu — a device to get programs from the internet onto your TV. We canceled our cable and bought one, hoping to save money, though I’m starting to think it just about evens out in the end.

  101. a device to get programs from the internet onto your TV
    Can this be true? Hulu doesn’t exist in Europeland, I’m sure.
    The film is pretty funny if you like that sort of thing (intermittent black humor). I’ve only seen bits of it.

  102. As I thought:

    Hulu is committed to making its content available worldwide…Given the international background of the Hulu team, we have both a professional and personal interest in making more money for practically no work

  103. Ah, I see: you meant “first met in person”, whereas I read it as “first met, not knowing one another at all”. I can hardly imagine meeting someone you don’t know in Grand Central: everybody’s going through it as fast as they can, not stopping to pass the time of day.
    Though I did sing there once, when I was waiting for an Amtrak train (Amtrak no longer serves Grand Central). I ran through my entire repertoire (well, not the nursery rhymes) twice, waiting for the *@#$* train. Nobody threw me any money, which is just as well.

  104. Were you on the upper or lower level? (Or perhaps on the third level?)

  105. This is making me think of the Sondheim song “Another 100 People Just Got Out of the Train”, which I only know because my son just performed in a high school production of “Company”. A song about all these people coming and going and meeting people and not meeting people and rushing around in NY, sung by a wacky character who gets very high on that whole crowded NYC experience.
    (The kids did a great job.)

  106. Hey, Hat, thanks for the Finney — that was fun.

  107. Yeah, that blew my teenage mind and I became a huge Finney fan for a while. (Try Time and Again for a novel-length blast of NYC nostalgia.)

  108. Hat:
    I was in the waiting room on the upper level, where the information booth with the clock is.
    Thanks for the link: I’ve heard of this story, but for one reason or another I never read it. Comparisons are odorous, but I prefer Avram Davidson’s “Take Wooden Indians” on the same theme.

  109. bruessel says:

    I’m waiting for Hulu to go international, don’t know if it’ll happen in the foreseeable future, though.

  110. I prefer Avram Davidson’s “Take Wooden Indians” on the same theme.
    Well, Avram Davidson is a heavyweight whereas Finney is middleweight at best, so it’s unfair to put them in the same ring, but yeah.

  111. Which of course could bring to mind Mu, if one has that sort of mind.
    Or no-mind

  112. Heh. Glad somebody enjoyed that!

  113. You never ought to construe a lack of enjoyment from our silence, Language.

  114. Rereading this one, I immediately thought of Boswell. Now there is no way all those conversations in The Life of Johnson are true to fact. Boswell did use a shorthand of sorts, but Johnson himself demonstrated the uselessness of such pre-modern systems for recording even fairly slow-paced dictation in real time, not to mention conversation:

    A person was mentioned, who it was said could take down in short hand the speeches in parliament with perfect exactness. JOHNSON. ‘Sir, it is impossible. I remember one Angel, who came to me to write for him a Preface or Dedication to a book upon short hand, and he professed to write as fast as a man could speak. In order to try him, I took down a book, and read while he wrote; and I favoured him, for I read more deliberately than usual. I had proceeded but a very little way, when he begged I would desist, for he could not follow me.’

    From what we know of Boswell’s procedure, he would use his shorthand to record at night what had been said during the day, and although his memory was obviously good, it couldn’t possibly be perfect — he was no Funés. So what Boswell is really asserting is the substantial accuracy of his book. He may have, and indeed must have, muddled any number of details, and knew that he was (though not which ones, Quine’s Paradox again!), without compromising the truth as he saw it.

  115. he was no Funés.

    Or even Funes.

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