Grinding Out the Origin of 'Emolument'

Rob Kyff on

President Donald Trump's recent suggestion that the G-7 hold its next meeting at his Doral golf resort near Miami has punctilious pundits grinding their molars. Having foreign officials spend millions of euros, Japanese yen and Canadian loonies at Trump's property would be a big no-no, they claim, not only because these dignitaries won't tip well for room service but also because it could possibly enrich Trump's personal coffers, which would violate the Constitution's emoluments clause.

Emoluments clause? Isn't that the warning on a jar of skin cream? Actually, that's the emollients clause: "FOR EXTERNAL USE ONLY."

By contrast, the emoluments clause actually FORBIDS external use. It refers to Article I, Section 9, Clause 8 of the U.S. Constitution, which states with quill-penned clarity that no U.S. officeholder "shall, without the Consent of Congress, accept of any present, Emolument, Office, or Title, of any kind whatever, from any King, Prince, or foreign State."

The Framers tucked that clause in there because, during the preceding decade, King Louis XVI of France had given a diamond-encrusted snuffbox to the American diplomat Benjamin Franklin, and King Charles III of Spain had given retired general George Washington a Spanish donkey -- which, in the spirit of full disclosure, Washington named "Royal Gift."

The creators of the Constitution realized that gratuities like these could quickly get out of hand. As Alexander Hamilton wrote in "Federalist No. 22," such bribery could provide "too easy an inlet to foreign corruption" of the young republic. After all, what would these kings be giving our leaders next? A statue representing liberty?

But where did the term "emolument" originate? Here's where those grinding molars come in.


The Latin verb molere, meaning "to grind," is the root of several English words, including "mill," "meal" and "molar" (grinding tooth). Because millers made money by grinding grain, the Latin noun "emolumentum" became a general term meaning "profit, gain." "Emolument" first appeared in English in 1480 when "The Wardrobe Accounts of Edward the Fourth" (the 15th-century version of "Keeping Up with the Kardashians") reported that a church official had received "offerings, oblations, and emoluments."

Since then, "emolument" has come to refer to money or perks provided to an officeholder or employee. The term has shown a steady decline in use since 1800, though the recent Doral controversy has revived its popularity. And that's something to chew on.


Rob Kyff, a teacher and writer in West Hartford, Connecticut, invites your language sightings. Send your reports of misuse and abuse, as well as examples of good writing, via email to or by regular mail to Rob Kyff, Creators Syndicate, 737 3rd Street, Hermosa Beach, CA 90254.

Copyright 2019 Creators Syndicate Inc.


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