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‘A MOOC? What’s a MOOC?’ Now You Can Look It Up

“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.”

Oxford Dictionaries Online is not the same as the Oxford English Dictionary, the venerable series of tomes that make up what is widely viewed as the supreme authority on English words.

The online dictionary updates its corpus more frequently than the print OED, and tries to keep up with the English language in real time, says Katherine Martin, the head of U.S. dictionaries for the Oxford press. Hence some of the words admitted this week alongside “MOOC.” Those include “twerk” (see: Miley Cyrus), “selfie” (see: Dzhokhar Tsarnaev), and “bitcoin” (see: the Winklevoss twins).

While some language purists might chafe at having trendy words like “MOOC” legitimized by the Oxford brand, Ms. Martin says dictionaries are not meant to be fortresses keeping out incorrect words. Their responsibility is to reflect language, she says, not police it.

Some words that are currently in fashion, like “srsly” (shorthand for “seriously”), can read as corruptions of language rather than additions to it—omens, perhaps, of a coming Twitter-apocalypse. As it turns out, use of “srsly” can be traced to as early as 1789, in a written guide to English shorthand titled Brachygraphy. Such a discovery could make “srsly” a candidate the OED, says Ms. Martin, thanks to its apparent persistence in the language.

As for “MOOC,” there is no telling how persistent the term—or the breed of online course to which it refers—will prove to be. The University of Oxford, for its part, does not yet seem convinced that MOOCs will figure prominently into the future of higher education; it is one of the few high-profile universities that has not made plans to experiment with MOOCs.

“Hypothetically, if it becomes a generic term for an online course, then we would add a new sentence or alter the definition to include that,” says Ms. Martin. The beauty of the online medium, she says, is that such things can be changed very quickly.

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