Oh, how the mighty may become small – a glorious rise, then downhill… Think of Temüjin (“Ironworker”), a Mongol who overcame many obstacles to become such a great leader that he was named Chinggis Khan, “Ocean Ruler” (“ocean” seems to be a term of great approbation in the high mountains and plateaux of east Asia; Tibetan dalai as in Dalai Lama also means “ocean”) – better known to us as Genghis Khan. He took an army west and conquered vast domains. Some of those who came with him stayed and settled northeast of Persia. They took on some Persian customs and languages, and converted to Islam, but were still called Mongols (Persian mugul). From these muguls came a line of emperors who conquered India and established a dynasty that flourished for centuries before slowly fading and finally being displaced by the British: the Mughal dynasty – better known to us as the Moguls.
Wait, do you still have that glorious image in your head, of great palaces, of the Taj Mahal and many other splendid edifices, of a great empire of the subcontinent that lasted centuries? Or are you thinking of a movie mogul, media mogul, music mogul, or real estate mogul – Rupert Murdoch, Ted Turner, David Geffen? (It seems that while czar has managed to stay in politics, mogul has moved entirely out of it into entertainment – but also, yes, buildings.)
Or are you thinking of a bump of snow on a ski slope?
While the first great Mogul emperor, Babur, was expanding his rule into the subcontinent, Austrians were using a word for a lump of bread, Mugel (from Mocke, “lump, clod, chunk”, probably from the same Indo-European root as mow) to refer to little hill. In the 1960s, that word was borrowed into English to refer to the bumps that may form on a ski slope, usually on the steeper bits, due to the way skiers push snow where they turn. The existing word mogul, already in use for at least three centuries in the general “bigshot” or “high muck-a-muck” sense (and does not mogul seem large-ish, with its big m, heavy /g/, and back vowels?), evidently exerted an influence on this borrowing. And so a great race of great rulers are reduced not even to Ozymandias’s stone in the sand but to one in a field of hundreds of ultimately evanescent, slowly mobile obstacles – bumps on the side of a mountain, made of an ocean of snow. O, glum!
But the moguls nonetheless provide thrilling viewing for winter sports fans, and I will surely be watching the mogul competition at the Vancouver Olympics, as skiers make their way down scores of these bumps (each one a brief rise, then sharper drop), with jumps in two spots: rise, turn in graceful splendour, come down again, and hope for a smooth landing so they can continue to mow down the lumps in speed and style.