Moolah Isn’t Irish

I have just noticed a tweet put out by Shamrock Clubwis (Wisconsin Shamrock Club) on January the 12th.

Today’s slang word from the Irish language is “Moolah.”

Moolah comes from the Irish phrase, “Moll Oir,” meaning “a pile of gold.”

Thanks to Daniel Cassidy’s “How The Irish Invented Slang,” from 2007.

It’s unfortunate how this garbage just keeps on circulating, disappearing and then surfacing again like a dead rat in a blocked drain. No, there is no evidence that moolah has any connection with Irish. While Cassidy’s suggestion of moll óir is much better than his usual standard (at least the phrase could exist and doesn’t infringe any grammatical rules) there is precious little evidence of anyone, anywhere using this phrase. On Google, the one example I found was in relation to a taped interview with a native Irish speaker from Donegal. In a description of the contents of the audio, it talks about someone finding a pile of gold (moll óir) under a flagstone. However, listening to the actual audio, the phrase isn’t mentioned.

There are numerous theories about the origins of the word moolah, which first appears in America in the 1930s. The strongest suggestion, as far as I’m concerned, is the Spanish phrase (especially associated with Venezuela) bajáte de la mula, which literally means ‘get down off the mule’ and figuratively means ‘give me the money!’ Mula sounds exactly like moolah. (However, there are problems with this. See the comment from David Gold below.)

Moll óir, on the other hand, sounds like ‘moll oar’. In other words, it sounds absolutely nothing like moolah.

 

Tá mé díreach i ndiaidh tvuít a fheiceáil a chuir Shamrock Clubwis (Wisconsin Shamrock Club) suas ar Twitter ar an 12ú lá de mhí Eanáir.

Today’s slang word from the Irish language is “Moolah.”

Moolah comes from the Irish phrase, “Moll Oir,” meaning “a pile of gold.”

Thanks to Daniel Cassidy’s “How The Irish Invented Slang,” from 2007.

Ní thagann. Más féidir leat an Ghaeilge seo a léamh, beidh a fhios agat nach frása coitianta é “moll óir”. Agus níl an frása sin ar dhóigh ar bith cosúil le moolah, agus cé go bhfuil a lán teoiricí ann faoi bhunús an fhocail moolah, an ceann is fearr, is dócha, ná an frása Spáinnise (atá le cloisteáil go coitianta sa Veiniséala, de réir cosúlachta) “bajáte de la mula”, a chiallaíonn “tuirling den mhiúil” ach a bhfuil brí fháthchiallach leis, mar atá, “tabhair dom an t-airgead!”  Tá an focal mula go díreach cosúil le moolah, ní hionann agus moll óir. (Agus sin ráite, tá fadhbanna ag baint leis an tsanasaíocht seo fosta – féach na tuairimí thíos.)

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5 thoughts on “Moolah Isn’t Irish

  1. David L. Gold

    The Venezuelan explanation smells of the lamp. For one thing, there is no agreement on the age of the Venezuelan Spanish idiom bajarse de la mula.

    According to “Significado de la expresión Bajarse de la mula” (http://diccionariovenezolano.com/bajarse-de-la-mula/), some claim that the idiom (one of the imperative forms of which is ¡bájate de la mula! ‘pay up!’, literally ‘get down from the mule!’ ~ ‘get off the mule!’) goes back to the time when what is now Venezuela was a Spanish colony and some claim that it dates to the 1970s.

    If only to the 1970s, it cannot figure in the etymology of a word going back at least to 1937.

    Even if the idiom turned out to date to the colonial period, a Venezuelan Spanish origin would be unlikely in the extreme because in 1937 and earlier Venezuelan Spanish was hardly represented in the United States.

    Probably most American English usages of Spanish origin dating to before that year are specifically of Mexican Spanish origin, which is not surprizing given the large numbers of speakers of Mexican Spanish in the southwestern part of the United States ever since the United States annexed that region after the Mexican War and given the presence of Spanish on the other side of the border in Mexico for generations.

    Possibly, there has been some Puerto Rican Spanish influence on American English since 1898, when the United States occupied Puerto Rico, but Venezuelan Spanish influence is far-fetched at any time.

    The alleged Irish origin of moola ~ moolah is mentioned several times here:
    “Moolah. The word known to all men.” (The Word Detective, http://www.word-detective.com/2008/08/moolah/).

    You should to set them straight on Cassidy.

    Moola ~ moolah is not of Hebrew origin either (despite what is said on that website).

    Reply
    1. DebunkerOfCassidy Post author

      Hi David, Welcome back! That’s interesting. I agree that if “bajarse de la mula” is of more recent origin, it’s obviously out of the frame. However, most of the accounts I’ve seen attribute it to the tolls people had to pay in colonial times to use the caminos reales. Of course, if it’s that old, it should have left some evidence somewhere before the 1970s. If there’s no evidence at all before that, that’s rather a smoking gun.

      As for Venezuelan Spanish, I agree that it probably wasn’t spoken much IN the USA, but there were thousands of oilmen from the USA working in Venezuela in the thirties, and if moolah comes from bajarse de la mula, then it’s essentially a misunderstanding of the Spanish, as mula doesn’t mean money.

      Anyway, that is just the explanation that looked most promising to me. Moolah from moll óir is obviously not correct. Interesting that there’s a fake Hebrew etymology as well as a fake Irish one. What is it about Irish and Hebrew (and Yiddish) that makes them targets for this kind of junk etymology?

      Reply
      1. David L. Gold

        Armchair etymologists, Sunday-afternoon etymologists, and cocktail-party etymologists thrive on the ignorance of the public. Cassidy would have had a much harder time peddling his trash speaking before the Department of Irish and Celtic Studies (however named) in a tertiary school in Ireland (north or south) than before an American audience, including most audiences of Americans of Irish ancestry.

        Similarly with Hebrew, Yidish, and other little-known languages in Anglophonia.

        Certain disciplines, such as medicine, are regulated. Other are not. Had Cassidy performed surgery as amateurishly as he contrived his etymologies, he would have been imprisoned for years, but since etymological research is unregulated, it is wide open to lay intrusion and he could therefore fantasize to his heart’s desire.

        My guess, which could be wrong, is that most if not all of the Americans in Venezuela working for American oil companies there belonged to middle and upper management, that they lived in housing provided by the companies, that they sent their children to schools provided by the companies, that they shopped in shops run by the companies, so that they presumably lived in English-speaking enclaves and the only close contact they regularly had with speakers of Spanish might have been with subordinates at work, who may well have known English, or servants at home.

        Since bajarse de la mula in its figurative sense is coarse (‘fork it over’ is probably the closest English equivalent in denotation and connotation), it is not an idiom that someone in a subordinate position would use to someone in a higher position.

        It is hard to see how in those circumstances American employees of the companies and their families could have heard the idiom so many times that they came to know it well and extracted from it the word for ‘mule’, which they took to mean ‘money’ and started using it in that sense in English.’.

        The form bajarse de la mula is the infinitive form (= the citation form). In actuality, an imperative form is probably most frequent. As such. it sounds harsh (‘fork it over!’). It is hard to imagine a subordinate directing an imperative form to someone in middle or upper management.

        When the families came back to the United States, they presumably scattered to the cities of their former residence. That would have diminished the linguistic influence they might have had as a group. So what if fifteen families, say, went to Tucson, Arizona, another fifteen to Denver, Colorado, and so on? Each group could not have generated the critical mass needed to be linguistically influential – and then they would have had to use the English word many times before others might adopt it.

        Still, I keep an open mind. Verified details have to be supplied if we are to believe that Venezuelan Spanish is the source of moola ~ moolah.

  2. DebunkerOfCassidy Post author

    I notice that Faoladh, an old friend of this blog, has challenged the Wisconsin Shamrock Club on Twitter. As he says, the Irish language matters, and it is important to challenge this kind of nonsense. Amen to that!

    Reply
  3. DebunkerOfCassidy Post author

    Hi, While my knowledge of the oil industry in 1930s Venezuela is limited, my guess would be that most of the Americans working there were not management. They were probably engineers who worked on a daily basis constructing the drilling platforms and doing the work of drilling. They were probably working closely with labour from Venezuela itself and if they had families, those families were probably in the States or elsewhere. Many of them were probably fairly rough people who spent much of their earnings in bars and brothels, where they could have heard the expression quite often! Also, these men probably tended to meet up in different jobs all over the world – Texas, Alberta, Iraq, Venezuela and they could well have developed their own argot, as people who work together often do. However, I agree entirely with your last line there:

    Verified details have to be supplied if we are to believe that Venezuelan Spanish is the source of moola ~ moolah.

    Reply

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