From grain to gain: the origin of “emolument”

There is growing concern about conflicts of interests between Donald Trump’s businesses and presidency. These conflicts may violate Article 1, Section 9 of the US Constitution, the anti-aristocratic and anti-bribery “Emoluments Clause”:

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.

Constitutional lawyers can explain why Trump’s international business ties may break this obscure clause, but what does this obscure word emolument mean, and where does it come from?

Emoluments: caught grain-handed? “Cornmeal breading,” image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.


An emolument, as the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) defines it, is “profit or gain arising from station, office, or employment.” It also once more generally referred to a “reward,” “salary,” “advantage,” or “benefit.” The Barnhart Etymological Dictionary dates it to 1435, citing the Proceedings of the Privy Council. (The Privy Council has advised the English monarchy since the late 1300s.)    

Entering into English from French, emolument ultimately derives from the Latin emolumentum, a “profit” or “gain,” especially one brought about by effort or exertion. Many etymologists conjecture, though, that the original sense of emolumentum was a “payment to a miller for grinding corn,” hence “profit.” The expression grist to/for the mill is grounded in a similar metaphor.

If this theory is correct, the root Latin is emolere, literally “to grind out.” Emolere fuses e– (a form of ex, “out of”) with molere, “to grind.” The latter, molere, is cognate to a host of other English words, including meal (grain) and mallet. Their Proto-Indo-European ancestor *mel-, “to crush” or “grind,” thus describes how a mallet can make meal.

Other etymologies, including Skeat and the OED’s, derive  Latin’s emolumentum from a similar-looking but different verb: emoliri, “to accomplish” with physical effort, or “work out.” The base of this emoliri is moles, a “mass” or “pile,” which chemistry borrowed in molecule and mole.

Grains, whether cereal or chemical, are little bits, but presidential emoluments? That’s a big deal.

m ∫ r ∫


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