Rob Abrazado (flatvurm) wrote,
Rob Abrazado
flatvurm

Living language - mook

Despite having been specifically warned against it by xkcd, I found myself surfing around on tvtropes.org the other day. For those who haven't experienced this site, it's basically a giant catalog of storytelling conventions and clichés from various media. Myself, I was spending a lot of time in the "Video Game" section. Anyway, aside from neatly devouring pretty much my whole evening, I also noticed the word "mook" cropping up a lot.

I was first exposed to the word "mook" in Robin D. Laws' excellent breakthrough role-playing game Feng Shui, so this was probably, oh, '96 or '97 or so. Feng Shui is an RPG based on all those Hong Kong action flicks you've come to know and love. You know when the hero is faced with a whole mob of bad guys, and the hero kicks all their asses? Those guys are mooks. The nameless, disposable individuals that make up the horde of opposition that gets stomped in an action-packed fight scene. That's what I've always thought of when I've heard the word "mook," and I had also just always assumed that the word was an RPG term.

So I was a little surprised to see it cropping up so much on the "Television Tropes & Idioms" website. Only a little surprised, frankly, just because I don't think it's an unknown word. I just started to wonder if the term had wider usage than just among gamers and nerds. I was reminded that I've actually heard it crop up at the casino; a player called somebody a "mook." I didn't think much about it at the time, but I got to wondering if this indicated the use of the word was wider-spread than I thought. Then, coincidentally, I was later convinced that usage was wider-spread than I thought, as I happened to be watching Clerks II and Randal called Elias a "mook." If the word was as niche and nerdy as I had originally thought, then sure, I could imagine Kevin Smith using the word, but not Randal. :) So clearly the word had at least migrated to popular culture, if it hadn't been there all along. Certainly Robin D. Laws didn't coin it. :) So where did it come from? Who says it? What does it really mean?

I was off to research.

The American Heritage dictionary defines "mook" as "an insignificant or contemptible person." This fits in perfectly with the casino and Clerks II usages, so that much lines up. It could be called broadly true for the Feng Shui definition, but clearly there was a lot of cultural nuance missing from that dictionary definition. So I assumed we were wandering off into the fuzzy areas of slang. In any case, I was less interested in the definition than the etymology, which American Heritage listed as "probably a variant of 'moke.'" "Moke" was listed as slang for "a dull person." British: donkey. Australian: broken-down horse. Sadly, it had no known origin for "moke," but at least now we were getting somewhere. Interestingly, Wikipedia lists "moke" also as slang used by Hawaiian residents to describe some of the native Polynesians, likening the meaning and use of "moke" to those of "redneck" in mainland America. This is a much more similar meaning to the apparently general usage of "mook" that I've seen, and Wikipedia mentions citation of this usage of the word "moke" in Hawaii as far back as in a missionary's travelogue from 1832. Wikipedia also mentions usage of "moke" in Northern Ireland that I personally take to mean something analogous to "Guido."

In any case. I turned to the source I often turn to in times of slang confusion, The Urban Dictionary. As expected, I encountered a wealth of definitions for "mook" at that site, as well as even a couple origins stories. One cited the 1973 Scorsese film Mean Streets, which I have not seen, but you can apparently view a relevant clip here, which highlights a scene whose point is, apparently, that you don't really know what "mook" means, just that it's bad. :)

Urban Dictionary also pointed out a source that, while clearly not the first use of "mook," highlights a different one that the ones with which I have so far been familiarized. UD points to a 2001 episode of the show Frontline called "Merchants of Cool," which focused on advertising targeting American teens. I haven't seen this show, either, but most excellently, the transcript is available online. The use of the word "mook" in this show is apparently used to conjure up the image of an obnoxious, uncouth male. I find it a pretty different meaning that the ones so far presented, and yet it is meant to identify a very specific cultural archetype, one which is intended to appeal to teenage boys based on market research, and one that gets reinforced by popular media.

Here's a quote from the episode from Douglas Rushkoff, speaking about this archetype: "His critics call him 'the mook.' That's right, M-O-O-K, mook. And you can find him almost any hour of the day or night somewhere on MTV. He's not real. He's a character -- crude, loud, obnoxious, and in-your-face." His first example? Tom Green. Hehe. :) I also enjoyed this quote: "Take Howard Stern, perhaps the original and still king of all mooks." Niiiice. So, from these examples, I get a clear picture of what kind of person they mean by "mook," and while the intent is clear, this is clearly a far cry from the definition that arises from the other media contexts, in which a mook is either a disposable, villainous combatant, or some kind of loser. I also found it interesting that the Frontline mook is a pointedly male term; the female counterpart to the Frontline mook is called "the midriff." Nice again.

Just as a quick aside, I wanted to especially point out this UD definition of "mook," which I think has many points of similarity with "Guido," and therefore I find relates much closer to the north Irish use of "moke" than either the Hawaiian moke or the classical use of "moke" meaning "donkey" (or, as slang, "dull person"). Though UD also provides this definition, which lists "mook" as Caribbean slang for a "very subservient person," which I think relates well to the "donkey" meaning of "moke."

Anyway. At the end of the day, I think I'm dealing with three major branches of slang usage for the word "mook."

First, there's the definition that I've personally always used, which is the Feng Shui mook, or disposable enemy. This definition seems to have backing in the RPG community, of course, and among the tvtropes.org media wonks.

Second, there's the pop culture mook, which I think is typified by the Mean Streets, Clerks II, and real life examples, and which comes out to mean something like "asshole" or "loser." Relatedly, I also think this is the same definition that I liken to "Guido," except from an outsider perspective. Which is to say...let's say that Person A calls Person B a "mook" and is totally justified in doing so. I'm saying that any given Person C, who is not from the same socioeconomic culture as the first two people, would probably call them both "mooks."

Third, there's the Frontline mook, the obnoxious and crude role model to teenage boys. I feel that (a) this is meant to be a separate definition from the pop culture mook, and (b) that this definition isn't really supported anywhere else. :) (Excepting, though, that it looks like the highest-voted definition on UD, so...there's that.) Personally, I like the idea of the archetype, but I don't think it's really fair to co-opt the term "mook" to describe it.

At any rate, I have one last point to touch on. In my research, it was revealed to me that "mook" is also apparently a Japanese portmanteau of the words "magazine" and "book," describing a particular kind of publication marketed in Japan. This was an unrelated enough definition that I didn't think it bore any weight on what I was actually researching, but for the first time, doubt was cast on the way I had always pronounced "mook."

I, and everyone I've encountered, always rhymed the word with "kook." This was also the near-unanimous result among respondents to my earlier post, by the way. (Excepting lepicurien, our local native Francophone. ;) ) This pronunciation is also supported by the movie and real life examples. But a portmanteau of "magazine" and "book"? Wouldn't that get pronounced to rhyme with "book" or "look"? I would assume so, though...since it's a Japanese construction based on English words, I have no idea how it's actually pronounced. (This definition, by the way, is actually mentioned right on tvtropes.org's own Mooks page, along with the mention that "mook" is "also a mostly obsolete racial slur against Italians," which I think may be possibly overstating things a bit, but one never knows).

So there you go. I think it's clear that use of the word "mook" goes back quite a way. What's not clear to me, though, is how its meaning of "disposable enemy" emerged, and part of me does still wonder if we can thank Robin D. Laws for making that happen with Feng Shui. (Although I was never a player of Shadowfist (the card game from which Feng Shui sprung), I'm pretty sure that mooks weren't a part of that game. Someone correct me if I'm wrong.) In any case, 1996 seems pretty late in the game for a term to be coined in an RPG and have it spread into more mainstream usage only 10 or so years later. Maybe I could ask Robin D. Laws where he got the idea from. :)

[EDIT: I totally wrote to Robin D. Laws, and he totally wrote me back. Wowsers. :) Reprinted with permission:
Like most choices from long ago, it's hard to unpack the original train of thought.

It probably comes from Scorsese's Mean Streets, where a character [tells] DeNiro's irresponsible street-level gambler that he's a mook. The implication is that he's dismissable, not the tough guy he thinks he is.

So there ya go. What's interesting to me about this answer is that, if Laws actually did co-opt the phrase from Scorsese's film and turned it into "disposable enemy," maybe that is the source for the new media definition as such, as opposed to the old social definition of "loser." The implications, too, are that both senses of popular use might trace back to Scorsese.

No, I'm not going to write Scorsese. :) ]

Anyway. Thanks for taking this little trip with me, everybody. What does "mook" mean to you? And why?
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