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shameless pleading

Moolah.

The word known to all men.

Dear Word Detective: Today my son was reading and asked me if “moolah” was a French word. I was pretty sure it wasn’t, said so, and then scurried off in search of etymology on the internet, as is my wont. Imagine my surprise to find it listed as “Origin Unknown” by all respected authorities and, even more incredible, no investigation done by the esteemed Word Detective! Time to put on that fedora and hit the streets, gumshoe! Seriously, though, I know that if all the major dictionaries are saying it’s “Origin Unknown,” that means just what it says: nobody has a real answer yet. But perhaps you could fill us in on the leading theories on “moolah”? — Kyle Riff.

Oh, ye of little faith! Of course I’ve researched “moolah.” And researched, and researched, poring over both hefty volumes of etymological wisdom and websites of flamboyant flapdoodle. I have researched until my fingers are cramped and my eyes are crossed, yet the journey always ends with me making another cup of coffee and picking a different question to answer. But people keep asking about “moolah,” so I guess you folks deserve at least a progress report.

What makes this quest especially frustrating is that “moolah” is one of my favorite words. As a vernacular synonym for “money” since the late 1930s, “moolah” has the swing and swagger of great slang and instantly brands its user as way too cool to sweat the small change of life.

One would think, with so many people wondering about the roots of “moolah,” that someone would have come up with at least one entertaining “urban legend” about the word, but no such luck. What theories do exist about its origins are both terse and far-fetched. One holds that “moolah” derives from the French “le moulin,” meaning “the mill,” referring to factory mills as a source of wealth. Color me extremely unconvinced. But while we’re stretching plausibility to the breaking point, I must mention the recent announcement, by the Times of India newspaper, that “moolah” is the Fijian (as in Fiji, in the South Pacific) word for “money.” Unfortunately, I lent my Fijian dictionary to my accountant last week, so I’ll have to wait until he gets back to check this assertion. But unless someone can explain how a Fijian word ended up on the lips of US gamblers and hipsters in the 1930s, I plan to ignore that theory. Yet another theory traces “moolah” to the Romany (Gypsy) word “mol,” meaning “to be worth,” which is not impossible but is considered unlikely by linguists.

Another theory, proposed by Daniel Cassidy in his recent book “The Secret Language of the Crossroads: How the Irish Invented Slang,” traces “moolah” to the Irish phrase “moll oir,” meaning “pile of gold.” My inclination is to consider this quite plausible, but Mr. Cassidy apparently paints with a very broad brush, also tracing “buckaroo” to the Irish “bocai rua” (wild boys). It has long been generally accepted, on solid evidence, that “buckaroo” is actually derived from the Mexican Spanish “vaquero,” meaning “cowboy.”

That doesn’t, of course, mean that Mr. Cassidy is wrong about “moll oir,” and personally I like his theory. But the quest must continue.

30 comments to Moolah.

  • I propose the Spanish word Mula, pronounced Moolah. In all Spanish-speaking countries a mule was, and still is, as good as cash, as camels were and are for the Arabs. In Venezuela “Bájate de la mula” (get down off your mule) means “pay up”.

  • james

    Moolah is a coruption of the god Moloch. The hefty sacrifice of children to the fire. Just as holy moley is also a corruption of Moloch.

  • gruff

    In P?li, the language of the early Buddhist scriptures, “m?la” means both “root” and “money”. Coincidence?

  • gruff

    that’s “Pali” and “mula” with macrons over the first vowel

  • Pradeep

    I’ve been trying to find the “roots” of “moolah” for quite some time now. Eugene’s theory is the most appealing I’ve ever read thus far. Have I finally come to the end of my quest?

  • Ben

    moolah or mula has to have come from the spanish word donkey

  • Jon

    Actually, he is not one of the signers of the Constitution, from Wikipedia:
    “Gerry was one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence and the Articles of Confederation. He was one of three men who refused to sign the Constitution because it did not then include a Bill of Rights.”

  • Jon

    Oops, too many websites about “Moolah” open at once, that comment was supposed to go to a different board, please delete/ignore.

  • Jon

    Actually, I know this article is from a couple years ago, but you might be interested to know that there is a new take on the origins of “Moolah” according to some (one lone politician in Texas) Moolah originated as an insulting slang term against Italians and was then used against Blacks (I’m not sure if his theory is it was used against African-Americans, Africans, or which demographic). According to him though, it is now a thoroughly racist term:
    http://dfw.cbslocal.com/2011/02/15/john-wiley-price-dallas-county-commissioners-go-to-hell/

    I do have to admit, this is the same guy who found the term “Black Hole” to be racist, so his etymology skills might be a wee bit off.

  • kleto

    Moolah or mula is not the Fijian word for money – the Fijian word money is ilavo.

  • Melanie

    I like Eugene’s response….
    “Bájate de la mula”

  • PG13

    ‘Mol’ meaning value is used in Hindi and Urdu in India almost exclusively. It may have come from ‘Mula’ from Pali and Sanskrit as gruff (above) suggested.

    Also in some South Indian languages ‘mulla’ means money or valuables, and is use such in many expressions.

    I’ve always thought it came from Hindi or Urdu, but seems like the origin is much older to Pali and Sanskrit.

    It may have made it to the European languages during the Colonial times.

  • Villainesse

    Since Roman(/Spanish), Hindi, and Sanskrit(Buddhist?) are deeply related languages, it is possible the above options have the same ancient root.

    But, it is extremely easy to imagine gamblers using the “bajate de la mula” demand and just shortening it right into our modern slang.

  • John

    Some slang words don’t even have an origin.

  • Andre Harris

    the very spelling of Moolah tends to suggest that it came from somewhere like India, so I think that considering what Gruff and PG 13 said it probably comes from One of the languages of Old India and was brought back by people of the British Raj. It suggests like it is related to some indo-european term.

  • alexander macrae

    Romany for money is Wonga – a not dissimilar word. The origins of the Romany language have been traced to South India.

    The Spanish also sounds right – but why just ‘mula’ – why not ‘mulas’, and why does it not linger on in that usage somewhere, or appear in stories from the past?

  • This feels like the sort of thing that would have been researched by now, so I feel a bit wary of pointing out what may very well be a dud, but in Arabic the word “mal” (pronounced with a long A) means “money, property”; and while “mal” itself seems a bit far from “moolah”, the root of that word is M-W-L, and that W does appear in related forms, such as the plural “amwal”, or the verb “mawwala” (to finance), or the participle “mumawwal” (rich). And going from “amwal” (or similar forms) to “moolah” does not feel all that far-fetched to me. Then again, many false etymologies don’t…

  • Jeffrey

    One finds the same meaning but with a different orthography in Damon Runyon where potatoes are often referred to as moolouw. Yet, nothing on Google.

  • Andrew

    buckaroo is definitely from spanish vaquero. cowboys have loads of spanish words in their vocabulary.

  • Lamont E. Lewis

    While we’re casting our lines for an origin, why not just look for the holy grail or Noah’s Ark? I think they have something in common: None exists. You’re going from India to Fiji on this thing, for cryin’ out loud! It’s chaff in the wind, and never to be gathered. I’ll bet any amount of moolah you wish to come up with. (So I have a dangling preposition. So what?)

  • Aprotim

    How about this – like many words (pyjama, dinghy, jute, loot, pundit, etc.), what if this comes from India? In Hindi, ????? (pronounced “mulya”) and in Bengali, ????? (pronounced “mulla/mullo”) both mean “price”. Since this is just the kind of salient word members of the Raj would distort/use with the locals, seems like a likely origin, and given that Kolkata (in Bengal, and noted victim of similar anglophone distortion into “Calcutta”) was the British capital of India until 1911, this is far less far-fetched than Fijian or even South Indian languages. This isn’t some obscure word, either – indeed, Google translate’s default translation of “price” for both language is one of these “moolah” sound-alikes.

  • Doesn’t all these diverse origins show how we are all connected, 6 degrees of separation? Here’s another one, JEHOVAH-GMOLAH……..Jeremiah 51:6
    meaning “The God of Recompense.” God revealed Himself to the Israelites through His name showing His characteristics and fulfilling their needs. That which has been stolen from His people has been returned to them, God paid them back double for the suffering they went through. Even though His children were not perfect, God keeps calling them back, reconciling AND promising to give to reward them for returning to Him. Blessings!

  • MarkB

    Moolah – see: the Fabulous.

  • Vailixi

    Mulya(pronounced moolya) is a Sanskrit word which means, price, worth, charge, salary,cost, value, fare etc; There can be a connection here.

    Thanks.
    V

  • Tomás

    Could it be child’s speak for ‘mooney’ and no more? I can tell you on good authority that the Irish language root cited above is incorrect. A book of Cork slang, i.e. Cork City Ireland, states that it’s in a Joyce book, unfortunately it doesn’t state which one. My father,a Corkman said he always associated with Cork slang and that Joyce may have picked it up from his father, who grew up in Cork.

  • Mila

    I went to an exhibit of the Henrietta Marie, a ship that carried African slaves. Part of the exhibit was on terms and words brought into the English language by West Africans, and moolah was one them.

  • Colleen

    There are hundreds of languages spoken in West Africa. As a possible source, it’s a direct link with USA. Re Thomas’ suggestion of child’s speak: my nephew’s early word for water was ‘woolly’, so… My family retained a few quaint children’s versions of words. Is this known to occur beyond a family circle?

  • LG

    I’ve been doing research on the Chinook Jargon (a widespread goldrush-era pidgin language of the Pacific Northwest) that might back up the first theory in your article.

    Even though Chinook Jargon faded out after the first world war, many words (like Skookum – awesome, Coolie – a kind of glacial valley, The Sticks – the wilderness) still live on in the lexicon of the West Coast.

    The Chinook Jargon word for mill (derived from the french) is in fact Moola, and several writers on Chinook have suggested a connection to the modern slang. Even today in the deep north of the Pacific Coast, the mills are synonymous with income in communities that have little else going for them economically.

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