Mooks mook mookum.

Dear Word Detective: I have been trying to discover anything about a term my father used to mean “inferior” or “unacceptable”: “mookum” (spelling my approximation of his pronunciation).  He was born in 1915 in the US and knew no Canadians, even during WWII, but his term seems to be an antonym of “skookum.” Your past column on “mook,” dating from the 1930’s, is the closest I’ve come to tracking this down. Any ideas? — Julia Logan.

That’s a great question. But before we begin, I should clarify that it was the word “mook” which first appeared in the 1930s, not my column about “mook” (which dates to the slightly less ancient year of 1997). Much as I would have liked to experience the 1930s (except, you know, the Depression, the rise of Hitler, etc.), ’twas not to be. It’s just as well; if I’d been around in the 1930s, I’d probably have missed out on Facebook and Twitter. Quick, Watson, to the time machine!

Your explanation of your father’s use of “mookum” as seeming to be an antonym of “skookum” is fascinating. “Skookum” is a great word, popular in the Pacific Northwest of the US and Canada, meaning “first-rate; excellent,” “intrepid, brave” or simply “very powerful or strong.” The word “skookum” is Chinook Indian jargon from the Salishian language of the region, and originally meant “evil spirit,” “disease” or “fearsome monster,” which was generalized into “powerful” and from there to “very good” and all the other positive senses of “skookum” today. “Skookum” has been used by English-speakers at least since the 1820s, and is a popular regional term in the Pacific Northwest (“Ted, by this time a skookum young fellow of 20, then turned his eyes further west,” 1975).

“Mook,” as I noted back in 1997, is slang meaning “an incompetent, stupid person,” especially one of low social class (“Even ordinary mooks like you and me have been stuffing their blotters and backs of envelopes in safe deposits for posterity,” S.J. Perelman, 1930). The “mook” is the schlub who spends high school sitting in the back of the classroom and whose name you can never remember in when friends point to him in the class picture.

The origin of “mook” is uncertain, but it’s probably a form of “moke,” which appeared in Britain in the early 19th century as regional slang for “donkey.” No one knows the roots of “moke” either, but it has also been used to mean “a fool or contemptible person.” It was also, for a time, derogatory slang in the US for an African-American person.

Unfortunately, I have been unable to find any sign of “mookum” or anything similar used, as your father did, to mean “inferior or unacceptable.” But I strongly suspect that with “mookum”  he was, in fact, using “mook” as an adjective. The similarity of “mook” meaning “inferior, contemptible person” to “mookum” meaning “inferior, unacceptable” is just too strong to be a coincidence. I also suspect, though less strongly, that the “um” ending of “mookum” is by analogy to “bunkum,” early 20th century US slang for “nonsense” and more usually seen today in the  simpler form “bunk.” (The fascinating story of “bunkum,” too long to recount here, can be found here.)

The fact that I have not been able to find “mookum” in print doesn’t mean that your father necessarily invented it (although that’s not impossible). It is not uncommon for slang terms to flourish in oral use for decades before someone uses them in print so we can trace them decades later, and it’s reasonable to assume that a certain number of them fade away without ever being immortalized in a novel, newspaper article, etc. But whether your father actually invented “mookum” or simply picked it up along the way, I think it’s a great word that deserves a second chance.

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