GRE Vocab – Croesus, Mogul, and Nabob

Let’s face it: one reason why you want to go to grad school is so that you can get rich and famous (or at least avoid living on the streets). With this post, you’ll learn a few choice million dollar words that you can use as you move up in the world (and they’ll help you study for the GRE, too).

Perhaps you hope your degree will help you become a nabob, a mogul, or a Croesus. All of these words refer to rich people, but their origins and histories give them slightly different meanings. All three of them have to do with European fascination with the riches of the orient, and the association of great wealth with exotic Asian potentates.

Solon and Croesus, by Gerard van Honthorst (1624).

Solon and Croesus, by Gerard van Honthorst (1624).

The oldest of the three is Croesus (pronounced cree-sus), as in the proverbial saying “rich as Croesus.” Croesus reigned from 560 to 547 B.C. as the last King of Lydia, a region in Asia Minor (or modern day Turkey), and he was known for his immense wealth. This wealth did not buy him wisdom in all things, however; when the celebrated Athenian lawmaker and sage Solon came to visit the Lydian court, Croesus asked Solon if he had ever seen anyone happier than Croesus himself. To this, the wise Solon replied that only those who have died happy can be said to be truly happy, for the fates are fickle and the riches of the living are often transient. Croesus was displeased with this answer, and paid it no heed at the time. It was only later when the flames were licking at his toes as he sat awaiting his death upon a funeral pyre, his kingdom overrun by Cyrus the Great of Persia, that he said to himself, “Maybe that Solon knew what he was about after all.” (Fortunately for Croesus, Apollo intervened and brought a rainstorm to douse the flames, so Croesus was saved. For more on Croesus and other colorful characters from long ago and far away, I highly recommend the Histories of Herodotus.)

The Taj Mahal, symbol of Mughal opulence.

Moving forward in time and further East, we come to the moguls. The word mogul is derived from the Mughal dynasty, which ruled India from Babur’s victory at Panipat in 1526 to the Empire’s decline in the early 1700s. The Mughals ruled at a time of great prosperity in India and they were known for their opulent lifestyles (Shah Jahan famously built the Taj Mahal as a memorial to his beloved wife, Mumtaz Mahal, after her tragic and untimely death). The word “mogul” was a British corruption of the dynasty’s name, and in English it quickly came to refer to people of immense wealth and power, especially captains of industry. Today, for instance, a media mogul is someone who owns many newspapers, TV networks, etc.

The word nabob also has its roots in the India of the Mughal dynasty. Under the Mughal Imperial system, a nawab was a viceroy or regional governor. After the disastrous 27 year war that ended the Mughal empire in the early 18th century, many nawabs declared independence and became rulers of smaller states. Not long after this balkanization of India, the British East India Company began to increase its activities in the subcontinent, and the British once again employed their inexhaustible talent for mispronouncing the words of their colonized peoples to give us the term nabob. The British even began to apply it to themselves, and a nabob came to be a British man who went to India to make his fortune. Today, while nabob can still refer to a person, especially a European, who has made a large fortune in India or another country of the East, it can also more generally mean any very wealthy, influential, or powerful person.

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