Q: There’s a poolroom scene in the film Mean Streets that revolves around someone being called a “mook.” I can’t find the word in my dictionary. Where does it come from? Did Martin Scorsese invent it?
A: In that scene from Mean Streets, one character calls another a “mook” and nobody in the pool hall knows what it means. Jimmy, the target of the insult, is baffled: “A mook. I’m a mook,” he says. Pause. “What’s a mook?” Movie fans have wondered too.
But contrary to legend, Scorsese didn’t make it up. “Mook,” a term that’s more or less synonymous with “jerk” or “dope,” is at least 90 years old and may come from a 19th-century word for a donkey. Here’s what the Oxford English Dictionary has to say:
“The term was undoubtedly popularized both in the United States and elsewhere by its use in the film Mean Streets (1973), directed and co-written by Martin Scorsese. The fact that, in the context of the script, the word is unfamiliar to most of the protagonists has led viewers to believe (wrongly) that the word was coined there.”
The OED has examples of “mook” dating from 1930 and defines it this way: “An incompetent or stupid person; a contemptible person (esp. with reference to low social status).” Oxford labels it a “colloquial and derogatory” term found in American and Caribbean English.
The word is also found, with similar definitions, in leading slang dictionaries. The Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang says a “mook” is “an ineffectual, foolish, or contemptible person.” And Green’s Dictionary of Slang describes it as “a general term of abuse, a foolish person.”
All three dictionaries cite a humor piece by S. J. Perelman for the earliest known example: “Even ordinary mooks like you and me have been stuffing their blotters and backs of envelopes in safe deposits for posterity.” From the Feb. 1, 1930, issue of Judge, a satirical weekly published in New York.
The OED’s later examples include one from the Yale Alumni Magazine: “This type of student, rigorously following a daily assignment schedule and graphing his grades on the wall, is a never common but somewhat frequent phenomenon. The ‘grind,’ ‘mook,’ or ‘weenie’ superficially seems to satisfy the demands of Yale, but in many ways he is not alive to the spirit of the place” (Jan. 21, 1958).
Oxford also cites Richard Allsopp’s Dictionary of Caribbean English Usage (1996), which spells the word as “mook” or “mouk” and defines it as “a gullible person (esp. a man); one who is easily fooled.” Allsopp says the word is found in Guyana, Tobago, and Trinidad.
As for its etymology, the OED says that “mook” is “of uncertain origin” but “perhaps” comes from “moke,” a 19th-century colloquialism that first meant a donkey and soon came to mean a dolt or a fool. (Random House also calls “mook” a probable alteration of “moke.”)
The donkey sense of “moke” first appeared in British slang. Oxford’s earliest example (spelled “moak”) is from a report on crime and policing that was presented to the House of Lords in 1839. The report, entitled Poverty, Mendicity and Crime, includes a glossary with this definition: “Moak, a donkey.” (The report was written by William Augustus Miles, who served on a royal commission that investigated the need for a rural constabulary in England.)
All of the OED’s subsequent donkey examples use the more common spelling “moke,” beginning with this one:
“They might live like gods, have infinite smokes, / Drink infinite rum, drive infinite mokes.” Slang words are italicized in the poem, written in June 1848 by the sculptor John Lucas Tupper. It was published anonymously in the literary journal Art and Poetry, London, March 1850.
Soon “moke” began appearing “in extended use,” as the OED says, to mean “a person who is stupid, awkward, or incompetent; a dolt, a fool.”
This new sense of “moke” was first recorded in writing, the dictionary says, by the artist and poet Dante Gabriel Rossetti: “He has an irreconcilable grudge against a poor moke of a fellow called Archer Gurney.” From a letter Rossetti wrote on Nov. 25, 1855. (The “he” referred to is Tennyson.)
It’s interesting that those last two “moke” citations—one for a donkey and one for a fool—have a connection. Tupper and Rossetti were friends and members of the Pre-Raphaelite circle, a group of young artists, poets, and writers who admired Italian art of the 1400s (the “Quattrocento”) and denounced Raphael and his followers.
It was the Pre-Raphaelites who founded the short-lived journal mentioned above, Art and Poetry, whose contributions were unsigned and often satirical. It’s easy to imagine the banter that must have gone on at editorial meetings. Perhaps the Pre-Raphaelites were responsible for the doltish development of “moke” and indirectly for its apparent successor, “mook.”
From the drawing rooms of 1850s London to the mean streets of New York’s Little Italy. Why not?
Help support the Grammarphobia Blog with your donation. And check out our books about the English language and more.