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Jamoke

Q From Bob Sypek: What is the origin and derivation of the word jamoke? An undergraduate from New York City used it to me in the mid 1960s to describe unflatteringly people from the neighborhood, as in ‘Just a coupla jamokes from down the street’. However, I’ve noticed in recent movies that Hollywood has corrupted the word twice: it has been shortened to just moke and it now has gangster, mobster or underworld connotations. As portrayed recently, it usually means a guy who provides muscle for a local street boss.

A I’m not at all sure that moke is an abbreviated form of jamoke in this sense. The two words have had independent histories, and moke is actually a good deal older. But their histories are tangled up together.

Jamoke is usually said to come from Java plus Mocha. When it first appeared, at the end of the nineteenth century, it literally meant coffee, and was sometimes written as Jamocha, which makes the origin a bit clearer (despite the coffee associations, linguists would say that the word is a clipped compound, not a blend ...). An example, from a book called Gay-Cat of 1922: “There ain’t nothing stronger in the booze line than pure alky mixed with jamocha”.

Professor Jonathan Lighter, in the Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang, suggests that jamoke was probably a nautical term to start with. He points out, too, that the evidence suggests it was a World War I soldier’s nickname, perhaps for somebody whose colour or intellect resembled a cup of coffee. Sometime before 1946 it took on a sense of “a stupid, objectionable or inconsequential fellow”, as Mr Lighter puts it. This sense has further evolved in some quarters into one for a dupe or sucker, and was a 1960s slang term for the penis. It has also been used more neutrally for guy or man.

Moke has had several senses down the centuries: in Britain, it meant a donkey or mule (first recorded in the 1830s but probably a lot older); in Australia, rather later on, it could mean an inferior horse. In the US, it became an offensive term for a black person (obviously taken from the earlier animal meaning). By the 1850s, it had arrived at a meaning of some foolish or contemptible person, or more simply, just somebody you dislike. Trying to pin down the meaning more tightly is as difficult as it always is with slang terms; Harvey Keitel was confused about it in the film Mean Streets back in 1973 and a lot of people would have trouble defining it even now. In this sense it is very much still around, though usually said and written mook.

Of all these forms, mook is currently the most common, at least in print. Earlier this year, Douglas Rushkoff appeared in a documentary on the US Public Broadcasting System called The Merchants of Cool, in which he explained a sense of mook used by advertisers, what USA Today the next day reported to be “the testosterone-crazed, perpetually adolescent male represented by Howard Stern”. Another writer described mook recently as “a boorish, screw-you pacesetter for cravings”.

It wouldn’t be altogether surprising to hear that jamoke has evolved further and been abbreviated to moke and then mook. It’s also likely that the two terms have influenced each other. But certainly they started out distinct.

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Copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–. All rights reserved.
Page created 24 Nov. 2001

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The English language is forever changing. New words appear; old ones fall out of use or alter their meanings. World Wide Words tries to record at least a part of this shifting wordscape by featuring new words, word histories, words in the news, and the curiosities of native English speech.

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Last modified: 24 November 2001.