What's in a Word? Mogul

by John Bemelmans Marciano

Photo: Alex Proimos / Flickr

mo•gul n. A magnate or tycoon, esp. of the media.

Between the Portuguese landing of 1498 and the rise of British rule in the eighteenth century, the Indian subcontinent was dominated by a very different kind of foreign invader. While the Europeans pecked at the coasts, a devastating Turkic-speaking Muslim army devoured India from the north, a process begun by the first Great Moghul, Babar. A descendant of Tamurlane and Genghis Khan, Babar considered himself a Mongol and aimed to establish an empire worthy of his forebears, although having grown up in Persianized Bukhara, his ways would have been foreign to his ancestors. (Moghul itself is Persian for "Mongol.") By 1600, most of the subcontinent was under the control of the Moghuls, who established an empire known for a wealth that was dizzying even by the standards of India, where the princely elite was expected to live in obscene luxury. Though in matters of religion they treaded lightly, the Persian and Islamic influence they brought to the arts can be seen in the Taj Mahal, the opulent mausoleum built by the Moghuls at the height of their rule.

Before acquiring its present use specific to titans of business, mogul was first employed metaphorically to mean a person of great power. A remarkable array of Indian titles have entered into English, as with maharajah for a person of showy wealth and brahmin for a member of Boston's aristocratic elite. Nawab was an Arabic term carried by the Moghuls into India, roughly meaning "governor"; in its corrupted English form nabob, it once enjoyed wide use to denote a person of moneyed extravagance, but is now mostly relegated to the more quoted than used phrase ìnattering nabobs of negativism,î William Safireís triumph of alliteration. The term mandarin originated in pre-Moghul India, where it meant a minister or adviser; it was carried to China by, of all people, the Portuguese.

This entry is excerpted from Toponymity: An Atlas of Words, by John Bemelmans Marciano, and is reprinted here with permission.

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