mook, moke

Mook is an American slang term for a dull-witted or otherwise person of low status. It’s recorded as far back as February 1930 when it appears in The Judge magazine in an article by S. J. Perelman:

Even ordinary mooks like you and me have been stuffing their blotters and backs of envelopes in safe deposits for posterity.

Like many slang words, its origin is not known for sure, but it may come from the older moke. That word appears in 1839 in the form moak and meaning a donkey. Within a couple of decades moke was being used to refer to people, as in this letter dated 25 November 1855 by Dante Gabriel Rossetti:

He has an irreconcilable grudge against a poor moke of a fellow called Archer Gurney.

In US slang moke is generally a racist term referring to a dark-skinned person, and it’s very distinct from mook, which has no racial implications. This sense of moke was current as early as the Mexican-American War when it appears in J. T. Downey’s The Cruise of the Portsmouth, 1845–1847: A Sailor’s View of the Naval Conquest of California:

Even the “mokes” in the “black sea” caught the infection.

Given the date so close to the first known use of the British slang and the very different meaning, it seems likely that this American use of moke is a separate development. It might be related to mocha; the slang jamoke, meaning coffee, appears by 1899. But that connection is highly speculative.

Mook is often popularly attributed to filmmaker Martin Scorcese, who used the word in his 1973 Mean Streets:

Joey “Clams” Scala: Alright, alright, we’re not gonna pay. We’re not paying.
Jimmy: But why? Joey, we just said we were gonna have a drink.
Joey “Clams” Scala: [Joey interupts] We’re not payin’, because this guy, this guy’s a fuckin’ mook.
Jimmy: But I didn’t say nothin’.
Joey “Clams” Scala: And we don’t pay mooks.
Jimmy: Mook? I’m a mook?
Joey “Clams” Scala: Yeah
Jimmy: What’s a mook?
Johnny Boy: A mook, what’s a mook?
Tony DeVienazo: I don’t know…
Johnny Boy: What’s a mook?
Jimmy: You can’t call me a mook!
Joey “Clams” Scala: I can’t?
Jimmy: No…
Joey “Clams” Scala: [pause] I’ll give you mook!
[a fight breaks out]

Given that in the context of the scene, only Joey “Clams” Scala knows what a mook is, many viewers take this as meaning the word was coined by Scorcese for the film, which is not the case. Mook predates the movie by at least forty years.


Sources:

“jamoke n.1,” Green’s Dictionary of Slang, 2010.

“mook, n.,” Oxford English Dictionary, third edition, December 2002.

“moke, n.2,” Oxford English Dictionary, third edition, September 2002.

“mook n.1,” Green’s Dictionary of Slang, 2010.

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