Emolument lotion? Etymology fun time!

If you’ve been even remotely paying attention to America recently, you’ve heard the word “emolument” quite a few times, maybe for the first time. And if you’re really paying attention, you might have noticed that it sounds a lot like “emollient”… like moisturizing lotion.

So, you’ve heard the word “emoluments”, and hopefully it’s clear from the context that “emolument” means something like bribes and kickbacks: some kind of illicit payment for favorable treatment. Merriam-Webster says “the returns arising from office or employment usually in the form of compensation or perquisites”; Dictionary.com saysprofit, salary, or fees from office or employment; compensation for services: Tips are an emolument in addition to wages.” That doesn’t sound like a word that means something unethical. But! We’re hearing the word in the context of “the Emoluments Clause to the US Constitution”, Article 1, Section 9, Clause 8, which reads:

No Title of Nobility shall be granted by the United States: And no Person holding any Office of Profit or Trust under them, shall, without the Consent of the Congress, accept of any present, Emolument, Office, or Title, of any kind whatever, from any King, Prince, or foreign State.  –ARTICLE I, SECTION 9, CLAUSE 8

OK, so this is where the “bribery” connotation comes in: In brief, the Emoluments Clause says that no “Person holding any Office” in the US Government, shall accept any foreign profit, salary, fees, compensation, etc. It’s obvious why: the Founders didn’t want the sovereignty of the new nation compromised by having leaders influenced by payments from other nations or rulers. If the officials in question might have considered the foreign power a threat, the payment might appease that concern and lead to more favorable treatment than what was really best for the nation.

Back to etymology. Our hypothetical official, he got bribed, and his concerns were mollified. Mollified means “softened in temper, appeased, pacified“, and the word is derived from the Latin roots “mollis”, meaning “soft”, and “ficere”, to make. So to mollify someone is to make them soft, etymologically. And “emollient” is also from the Latin root “mollis”, and still explicitly refers to “making soft”, because that’s what moisturizing lotion is supposed to do.

I was hoping that I’d look up the etymology of “emolument” and find the obvious connection I’ve implied above. But no, the Online Etymology Dictionary says:

mid-15c., from Old French émolument “advantage, gain, benefit; income, revenue” (13c.) and directly from Latin emolumentum “profit, gain, advantage, benefit,” perhaps originally “payment to a miller for grinding corn,” from emolere “grind out,” from assimilated form of ex “out” (see ex-) + molere “to grind” (see mallet).

Drat! That’s not what I had hoped for. “Emoluments” is cognate with “mill”, a grinder, because it was originally a Latin word for paying millers for grinding corn. (“Corn” is an archaic word for any grain, because modern American “corn” is native to the New World, and the Romans didn’t have it.)

But hold on a minute, we’re in luck. After some more research, I came across the longer and more detailed etymological exploration of the word “mild“:

Old English milde “gentle, merciful,” from Proto-Germanic *milthjaz- (source also of Old Norse mildr, Old Saxon mildi, Old Frisian milde, Middle Dutch milde, Dutch mild, Old High German milti, German milde “mild,” Gothic mildiþa “kindness”).

This is from PIE *meldh-, from the root *mel- (1) “soft,” with derivatives referring to soft or softened materials (source also of Hittite mallanzi “they grind;” Armenian malem “I crush, bruise;” Sanskrit mrdh “to neglect,” also “to be moist;” Greek malakos “soft,” malthon “weakling,” mylos “millstone,” myle“mill;” Latin molere “to grind,” mola “millstone, mill,” milium “millet;” Old Irish meldach “tender;” Old English melu “meal, flour;” Albanian miel “meal, flour;” Old Church Slavonic meljo, Lithuanian malu “to grind;” Old Church Slavonic mlatu, Russian molotu “hammer”).

Bingo! The Latin molere, “to grind”, is derived from the Proto-Indo-European root mel-, “soft”, by way of the sense that grinding in a mill starts with hard grains and results in soft flour. So as I suspected, “emolument” is cognate with “emollient” (and “mollify”), through a roundabout etymological path of linguistic evolution.

It was especially amusing to learn that in addition to this, “mill”, “mild”, and “mallet” in English, as well as several other languages’ words for “hammer”, “crush”, “bruise”, “soft”, “weakling”, and “tender”, are all also cognate with our host today.

I’ll conclude this essay by quoting the ultra-conservative, Reagan-worshiping Heritage Foundation‘s essay on the Emoluments Clause of the Constitution:

…Similarly, the Framers intended the Emoluments Clause to protect the republican character of American political institutions. “One of the weak sides of republics, among their numerous advantages, is that they afford too easy an inlet to foreign corruption.” The Federalist No. 22 (Alexander Hamilton). The delegates at the Constitutional Convention specifically designed the clause as an antidote to potentially corrupting foreign practices of a kind that the Framers had observed during the period of the Confederation… Wary, however, of the possibility that such gestures might unduly influence American officials in their dealings with foreign states, the Framers institutionalized the practice of requiring the consent of Congress before one could accept “any present, Emolument, Office, or Title, of any kind whatever, from…[a] foreign State.”

St. George Tucker’s explanation of the clause noted that “in the reign of Charles the [S]econd of England, that prince, and almost all his officers of state were either actual pensioners of the court of France, or supposed to be under its influence, directly, or indirectly, from that cause. The reign of that monarch has been, accordingly, proverbially disgraceful to his memory.” As these remarks imply, the clause was directed not merely at American diplomats serving abroad, but more generally at officials throughout the federal government.


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