Carlo Allegri / Reuters

Why would English speakers use the word emolument, anyway?

All human societies have a formal way of using language, learned after the casual language one absorbs on Mommy’s or Daddy’s knee. Formal language serves many uses; at certain times one needs special precision or gravity to communicate with a certain distance, if the messiness of the personal and subjective would interfere with the proceedings at hand.

We cherish, then, the difference between help, aid, and assist. We cherish words like expiate and concurrent, which convey concepts meaningful more to the adult than the child and carry a whiff of polish, glint, occasion. It is this essence that President Donald Trump flouted in his October 9 letter to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. Couching such urgent matters in the terms and phrases of a mere sit-down with a beer (“Don’t be a tough guy. Don’t be a fool!”) is not, as Trump seems to think, a simple issue of manner, but of a neglect of the precision and personal distance key to effective international diplomacy.

However, there are times when formal English drifts beyond the useful and becomes fossilized ceremony. The word emolument is one example. It has come up in the news much of late because of the discussion as to whether Trump violated the emoluments clause in the Constitution, which stipulates that a president is not to receive “gifts, emoluments, offices or titles” from foreign powers without congressional consent.

Yet many of us, let’s face it, have never had the opportunity to use or even process that word until this presidency, other than perhaps briefly meeting it when introduced to the Constitution. Tossing it around can only create confusion, which may be useful to the president’s allies, but not to those who would hold him to account.

Yes, the word is “in the dictionary”—but then so is the word ruth, as in the mercy that one refrains from displaying when one is ruthless. Ruth as mercy was indeed once a living word, but certainly is not now (“Show me ruth, oh please!”— please). Its preservation with its definition in the dictionary qualifies as an archival matter. If emolument is used so rarely that when it comes up in the news, most of us need tutorials on what the word means, might we not decide that emolument qualifies, too, as an archival matter? That is, if we all must be told that emolument means compensation and special allowance, then why not just use those words instead and let emolument go the way of ruth? Compensation and allowance are hardly sandbox words, but we all know what they mean.

In any language, words can drift out of usage, often for chance reasons. English speakers centuries ago could refer to expeding as well as impeding, and to exulceration, still “in the dictionary” but today used only as a medical term rather than to refer to irritation or corruption more generally. Certainly some of us have a quirky fondness for words of this kind. One might wish to know the meaning of words like tergiversation and solecism just for the fun of it, to curate a collection of one’s own special stuff, as something to pop out at parties. Books are published gathering words like those.

Beyond this hobbyist’s affection, however, we must understand that print, literacy, and dictionaries occasion something deeply odd in written languages: words that almost no speaker of that language knows the meaning of. This is a bit strange, because words are designed for communication.

In indigenous societies, ceremonial language can retain ancient words that have passed out of use and are no longer understood. My favorite example is among the Lokele in the Democratic Republic of Congo, who traditionally could “talk” by playing drums with different pitches, because their language uses tones the way Chinese does. Many of the words used in ceremonies were “drum words” whose actual meanings were lost. But—this was only in ceremonies, and is as harmless as, say, our joyously reciting the nursery rhyme “Hickory, Dickory, Dock” with no idea that those are the numbers eight, nine, and 10 in the Celtic speech spoken by the indigenous people of Britain that the Angles, Saxons, and Jutes encountered. When matters of diplomacy are being discussed, “hickory, dickory, dock” (and covfefe) won’t do.

Impeachment is no nursery rhyme, and with a matter so pressing, it qualifies as a needless burden that a central term like emolument is so opaque to all but a sliver of us. A caller on Rush Limbaugh’s show asked, “Could you explain this emoluments thing? It sounds like a toothpaste.” No one would ask that if legal experts referred to a constitutional ban on the president accepting any kind of compensation or side benefit from a foreign power; it would seem less a “thing” than a simple concept.

Emolument is a kind of word that should be considered about as relevant to modern life as a flashcube. What matters is what it refers to, and for that discussion we have plenty of readily understandable words—that is, real language.

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