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shameless pleading






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.

58 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:

    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.

    • Angela White

      “Some slang doesn’t have an origin”? Just because we do not know the origin, does not mean there isn’t one.

      The Sanskrit/Bengali mulla for price, value, worth, salary seems most plausible. Also the Hebrew ‘gmolah’ is probably a related word.

  • 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.


  • 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.

  • infanttyrone

    At the risk of not being granted an indulgence for the intrusion…

    Does anyone have a basis for connecting moola/moolah to “mullah”?

    Seems like religions are generally at the service of, as noted by the etymologist Carlin, a deity that is omniscient, omnipotent, omnipresent, omni-whatever, but who always needs Money.

    Thanks for any responses…

  • Google Ngram Viewer shows the word “Moolah” (capitalized) first appearing in print in 1810, quite a long time before the 1930’s. It appears capitalized most of the time up until 1926, when it then starts to appear more often in informal lowercase.

  • Remember that nearly ALL language comes from ‘sounds’ that connect naturally with the objects being named. Such as Ancient Egyptian: Cat – ‘Mau’ (‘Meow’), Hawk is ‘Hau’ (the Haauu.. sound they make), etc. Most words originally derive from ‘natural’ Onomatopoeia (‘sizzle’, cuckoo, ‘slither’, Ssssnake, ‘Criket’, etc., etc….).

    So: it seems ALL of the ‘Moolah’ derivations are Valid – and there is LOTS of global lingual overlap of similar ‘Value-Based’ words ‘sounding like’ Mool-ah… from Irish, to Hindi, to Spanish, etc., etc….

    Hence – the Universality and popularity of using the sound ‘Moolahhh…’ to represent money.

  • EoS

    I have always believed that the word Moolah is sprung from molasses, i.e. suger, i.e. money. But probably a far to simple explanation.

  • Jenn

    The word “amoleh” for salt could be a possible etymology.

  • Yes indeed one of my favorite words as well but and I concur with your theories but alas ,no answer. Please continue your hard work! :-)

  • Richard Howorth

    I recall reading a novel by the Irish American writer, J. P. Donleavy, and his use the word “moulagh” for dough, or money. I remember this because, though I often used the word moolah as a kid around my brothers and friends, it was the first time I encountered it in print, and for a long time I thought moulagh was the way the word is spelled. Unless I’m mistaken, this would give credence to the Irish connection, “moll oir.”

  • Dhirendra Singh

    I am a fijian, and no words native or slang is in the Fijian dialect exist as Moolah or mula.. The closest we use in Fiji is Mullah.. which means “Islamic Priest”.

  • Dhirendra Singh

    Not sure how the Times of India came up with the story.

  • The African Contribution

    Since everyone is going with their little story… I’ll add mine. The word money in Kirundi is “amahera” or just “‘mahera” and since the “r” is pronounced close to an “l” sound – we pronounce it “(a)mahela” pretty much.

    Since almost everything can be traced back to Africa… And even India happened to be nothing but a part of the old Kushite Empire/Kingdom… It’s safe to assume the origin is here again Africa. Voilà!

    OK! I’ll leave now.

  • darrah

    “mola” which means “spring” like a bed spring also is a slang for money. very similar.

  • Thomas

    So, I looked up the etymology for this today because I drove past a place called Moolah Temple yesterday and went, “Wait, what?” Apparently it’s a Shriner thing, and the one near me is now no longer used as a temple, but the name remains (it’s a big old building). On the website for another Shriner Temple also called Moolah Temple, they provided the following definition:

    “MOOLAH – an Arabic word meaning ‘Title for one learned in teaching dignity for Islamic law and religion.'”

    So I guess there’s that.

    When I typed “moolah” into google translate and tried to translate from Arabic to English, well–of course the site got a little confused, because I was using the Roman alphabet for Arabic. They asked if I meant an Arabic word whose transliteration would be “mewlah,” and I clicked on that to see what would happen, and it translated the word to “master” in English.

    I don’t know how this would be related to money at all. Maybe it’s another dead end. But I just wanted to share what I found.

  • lewice lewice

    during the Korean War the aerial battle between the American Sabres and the Communist MiGs was hugely important. The Americans wanted to know more about the MiGs, so they set up operation Moolah. Basically they would pay $100,000 for any Korean pilots who defected in a MiG. I.e. this money was for a Korean pilot to fly a MiG to an American airbase in South Korea and surrender it.

    Perhaps naming an operation that offered a lot of money Moolah, gave rise to this word being used to mean a lot of money!

  • The Swahili word for God is Mola. I’ve been trying to trace it’s etymology a that’s how I got here. Although I haven’t come up with a definitive answer I do have a theory. The Swahili were an influential mercantile civilization on the East Coast of Africa. They had and still exibit strong connections to the Indian sub-continent as well as the Arabian Peninsula. As a mercantile civilization, money played a major role in their social structure. As such their religion may have centered around money. In other words, God’s blessing measured in wealth. The Swahili were also monotheistic, and practiced what is today seen as a form of Islam. They believed that Mola was one, hence the idea of a root.

  • The german [sl.] Mäuser (“mice”) means moolah, and is at least similar in pronunciation.

  • Lo

    TL;DR: Don’t know the answer – guess there isn’t just one origin, since it’s a quite primitive word – words change – if you go down, be prepared!

    Well, asking for an 100% true answer to the origin of a word, which is used in the US is quite hard – not the asking actually, but finding the answer…
    There’s basically every ethnicity of the world in the US and with it languages, influences, cultures, yada yada yada.

    Fortunately, there are some well preserved traces to most of the words origin, but sometimes there’s a word like ‘Moolah’, or is it ‘mula’? Or ‘mulla’ or even ‘moola’?!
    (@thinkyhead: Ngram showed me results for ‘mula’ back in 1699, ‘mulla’ 1721, ‘Moolah’ 1763,’moola’ 1808, and last but not least ‘moolah’ 1815, whereas ‘mula’ was and is always king, except from ~1820-1840)

    See, one of the first things when venturing out to find THE origin of a word is to know how do you spell the word correctly, in short, what to look for exactly.

    And one of my most favorite – yet in this case somewhat hindering – features of the US mentality is – my so beloved – gemutlichkeit (note: following ramble isn’t just limited to the US rather applies to any country, culture, man, woman and other*):

    Words get circumcised, letters disappear, syllables get swallowed, and meanings(!) change in a moment’s notice,…
    It’s actually pretty great, and also necessary – considering lots of people, lots of languages, lots of (im-?!)proper pronunciation, spellings, school sucks anyways,… and the people just want to freaking talk to each other, chat about (idk) the weather (mayhaps?!) and don’t want to get held back by unnecessary ‘E’s, or ‘U’s or red necks or… I mean red coats… and so on and on and on and…
    Language is vivid, it lives, breathes, it progresses (*now we have ze, and xe, and kee, and lee,… yay, more, and more more or less beautiful and meaningful and thoughtful words!), regresses, or just gresses at least a bittle (see, what I did there?), it’s the oldest organism, which is still alive!

    So, back on topic…
    Generally speaking, most of the common used words are pretty much known, since it’s a quite ordinary and documented origin.
    But if you are looking for a word, which is composed of two of the simplest noises ever, a ‘moo’ sound and a ‘la’ sound, and you’re trying to find the one and only origin of the word, or rather the origin of the meaning we associate it with today, in the most cultural divers place on this very planet, I won’t say it’s impossible, but I wish you best of luck!
    Just don’t be an agnorant bafoon!
    The hole is deep, and it wasn’t dug by a rabbit.

    Cheers, good luck and farewell,

  • Neil Husher

    If not a slur in the past, it has become the favorite of conservative politicians with a wink and a sneer to name or pronounce “Mullah”, an Islamic theologian.

  • sutapa sengupta

    moolah may come from sanskrit mulyah, which means price.
    british could pick it from indian vernacular when they colonise india.

  • I am Indian, and I am familiar with Indian languages and English. I was educated in the UK from the age of 5 years. Many EnglIsh words come from India, via the British Raj. I know that mul” means price or value in Punjabi and Hindi. I can imagine an Englishman bartering in India, and asking how much “moolah”, meaning how much money. Sounds like a plausible origin of the word, more so than mules, donkeys and other unlikely suggestions.

  • Wilma Wanda

    In Mozambique mollla means money( dinheiro) .

  • Deborah Aydon

    It’s the Sudanese word for a stew/curry. A staple food. Is it to far-fetched to think that it originated with Americans of African descent, gravitating from food to the means of putting food on the table?

  • Tuulikki Kyytsönen

    Hamburg was and still is the biggest trading center for oriental carpets, partly coming from India. Harbour workers may have picked up the Hindi word “moolyah” for money and implemented it in their local language “plattdüütsch” (Lower Saxonian). A person boasting having money is called “mallig”.

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