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Put the mockers on

Q From Tim Falkiner: Could you please tell me where the phrase put the moccas on comes from? It is also spelled mockas and mokkas. It is a rather rare phrase here in Australia.

A These are relatively recent respellings of the canonical form, to put the mockers on, these days mainly British. It means to jinx or bring bad luck on an activity or to hinder it, perhaps through an adverse circumstance that may be regarded as bad luck.

Some examples from newspapers may help. This was in the Newcastle Evening Chronicle dated 11 November 2005: “Radio presenter Tony Horne’s training for the Great Ethiopian Run could all have been in vain due to political unrest [which] may have put the mockers on it.” The Racing Post of 23 January 2006 had: “The only thing I don’t like about it is he’s favourite already and that usually puts the mockers on them!” Another report said that continuing rain “put the mockers on” any chance of resuming play in a cricket match. A piece on a football match quoted a supporter who jokingly argued that complimentary comments made in a previous report “put the mockers on” their chance of winning.

I would have said that the expression was old-fashioned and dated but my search through the newspaper archives suggests that it’s enjoying an active retirement on the sports pages.

The first example recorded in the Oxford English Dictionary is from an Australian novel of 1922. The editors are sure the expression was indeed originally Australian — it seems to have been brought to the UK rather later than that date, perhaps during the Second World War, but it certainly became popular here. An earlier form, known only in Australia, is put a mock on, which is known there from at least 1911.

It has been suggested that it is from the Romany words mokardi or mokodo for something tainted, or possibly from Yiddish make, a sore or scourge. It doesn’t seem to be connected with the outdated Australian term mocker or mokker, meaning clothing or attire, whose origin is unknown (though Jonathon Green suggests it might be linked with Yiddish macher, a big man, or a big shot). The Oxford dictionaries are sure it straightforwardly comes either from mock in the sense of deride, or mocker, meaning somebody who mocks.

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Page created 01 Jul 2006