Emoluments: grinding out or softening up?

A high-flown term for ‘salary’ seems to be rooted in a metaphor of ground grain, but the word’s sound symbolism suggests something else. 

Kevin Lamarque/Reuters
A member of Congress holds a copy of the U.S. Constitution during a press conference held to outline the claim that U.S. President Donald Trump violated the emoluments clause of the Constitution in the U.S. Capitol in Washington on June 20, 2017.

‘Excuse me, can you tell me where the emoluments are?”

“Oh, sure, over on Aisle 6, with the other skin-care lotions.”

“Great, thanks!”

There. Doesn’t that sound about right?

Um, no, actually. “Emollients” are what the customer in this imagined exchange really wanted. Emoluments are something else. Emollient comes from a Latin word, emollire, meaning “to make soft, soften,” the Online Etymology Dictionary says.

Mollify, another “soft” word, shares the same moll element, plus the -fy suffix, meaning “to make” or “to do.”

In real life, an emollient is a lotion for softening the skin. 

Mollify goes back to the late 14th century and meant concretely “to soften (some substance).” You might speak of setting the butter out on the kitchen counter to mollify it. But in real life, mollify is used in a metaphorical sense that came a bit later: to “soften in temper, appease, pacify,” as the dictionary explains.

Emolument, back in the news because of the Constitution’s Emoluments Clause, which prohibits presidents from accepting payments from foreign states, seems rooted in a different metaphor: grinding.

The Oxford English Dictionary traces emolument to a Latin word meaning to “bring out by effort,” but then hedges and suggests that another verb meaning “to grind out” is a more plausible root. “Possibly two distinct Latin words of the same spelling may have been confused.”

Oxford defines emolument as “Profit or gain arising from station, office, or employment; dues; reward, remuneration, salary.”

If you accept the “bring out by effort” etymology, the idea behind emolument is of a financial reward brought about by one’s effort. But according to John Kelly at the etymology website Mashed Radish, there’s much speculation that “the original sense of [the Latin] emolumentum was a ‘payment to a miller for grinding corn.’ ” 

That analysis supports the “grinding” etymology.

There’s something satisfying about a monetary term grounded in something as humble as grain – or salt, which is the metaphor behind salary. The Latin salarium was the term for a Roman soldier’s salt allowance.

Our financial vocabulary, though, tends toward the high-flown and polysyllabic. Consider Charles Dickens’s Mr. Micawber, in “David Copperfield”: “I am at present, my dear Copperfield, engaged in the sale of corn upon commission. It is not an avocation of a remunerative description – in other words it does not pay – and some temporary embarrassments of a pecuniary nature have been the consequence. I am however delighted to add that I have now an immediate prospect of something turning up....”

“An avocation of a remunerative description”? How can he even get those words out of his mouth at a normal conversational tempo? And look at all those  liquid consonants in “remunerative” – the “r’s,” the “m,” and the “n.”

One can make a similar observation about emolument

Emolument may indeed be a completely non-pejorative term derived from the Latin word for a miller’s honest fee. But the sound symbolism, plus the coincidental resemblance to emollient, suggests that someone has been softened up.

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