“A mook? What’s a mook?” asks “Johnny Boy” Civello, the fast-talking gambling debtor in Martin Scorsese’s 1973 film Mean Streets.
For years, “mook” existed in English as an obscure slang term referring to “a foolish, insignificant, or contemptible person” (as Merriam-Webster’s Online defines it). According to one Scorsese biographer, Vincent LoBrutto, the term first appeared in 1930 in the work of S.J. Perelman, the well-known writer and humorist. Since then it has occasionally resurfaced—in Mean Streets, for example; and again, around 2000, to classify an emerging class of poor, angry white kids who listen to rap metal. But that particular monosyllable was rarely at the tip of anyone’s tongue.
Until recently, that is, when college professors began broadcasting their courses to a worldwide audience. They called their courses “MOOCs,” which stands for massive open online courses and is pronounced “mooks.” Suddenly, that unfortunate syllable could be heard everywhere: in the news and the blogs, at tech conferences and faculty meetings, in legislative hearings and policy proposals.
Now, it has been formally enshrined into the English language. Oxford University Press this week inducted “MOOC” into its Oxford Dictionaries Online. The definition: “A course of study made available over the Internet without charge to a very large number of people.”