A Manner of Speaking

I work with someone who says, when an issue has been rendered unimportant because events have overtaken it, “I guess it’s a mute point now.” I know a few people who use that phrase. I had a conversation with one of them at a writers’ conference and it went like this:

ME: I thought it was a ‘moot point,’ as in ‘academic.’
HIM: Oh, no. It’s ‘mute.’ Like there’s no more point in talking about it.
ME: But we are talking about it.
HIM: Right.

“Moot” comes from Old English and it’s the same word as in the phrase Moot Court, which is an academic trial where all the conventions of the courtroom are followed. You can use it as a verb by mooting an idea—putting it up for discussion. The root of the word is the same as “meet” and it described a type of meeting or gathering.

Or here’s another one, that you don’t hear as much; “To the manor born.” Or is it, “to the manner born?” I thought it was the former, a comment that the person wasn’t aristocracy, but came from more bourgeois origins. Again, two people have told me that it’s not that at all—it’s people who weren’t brought up with good manners, or a certain type of manner, so they weren’t “to the manner born.”


Lately on blogs I’m finding this, more than I want to, “Advocates poured over the proposed bill and expressed dismay at the lack of (whatever).” Unless the advocates are undines, or related to Odo on Star Trek; Deep Space Nine, they probably didn’t pour over anything. They more likely pored over it. Pore (v); to study deeply.

Or, (and this one almost works) some people describe something that’s in doubt or the subject of skepticism by saying “supposably,” as in, “Well, supposably, the car gets seventy-five miles to a gallon of gasoline.” I always thought it was “supposedly.” The cool thing about “supposably ” is that it seems like it should be a word. Things should be “supposable.”

I worked with a woman years ago who said, “They’re making money hand over foot.” “Hand over fist” does not make a lot of sense unless you imagine a person being handed money and pantomime it; one fist clutching money as the other open hand reaches out to grab more. Hand over fist. “They’re making money hand over hand” just sounds lame.

At a time when cash registers are basically silent, the word expression “ka-ching” has stayed around and means a monetary score. How long before everyone forgets the origin of that phrase?

The other week I was watching the Rachel Maddow show and she was talking with some reporter who followed intelligence and spy stories. It was about Blackwater, I think. Rachel asked him how a certain story had surfaced, and he said, “The military dimed out the spooks.”

“Dimed out;” obviously a short-hand version of “dropped a dime on.” “Dropped a dime” as a way to inform on someone is a wonderful, alliterative expression that has no meaning anymore. It referred to the cost to make a local call from a pay phone. First of all, a local call in the US is at least a quarter now. More importantly, there are barely any pay phones anymore. Everyone has a cell phone. What’s the cute, slangy phrase for ratting someone out from a cell phone or via text? We all thought that Monica Lewinsky’s faux friend Linda Tripp was going to hand us that one—you tripp someone, obviously, but it never took off.

In my imagination, “dimed out” devolves to “dined out” as in, “the military dined out the spooks,” because nobody gets the reference. Then they all decide, “Well, you rat out people over dinner, so therefore they were dined out.” There you are, or Bob’s your uncle, as the Aussies say.

I am sure that the tech, the recession and some verbally colorful politicians (Bush! Palin!) will help incubate great slang expressions that will endure for the next sixty or seventy years. I wonder which ones they’ll be.

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