A corpus-linguistic take on "emolument(s)" (updated)

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From the Washington Post:

The study is a corpus analysis performed by Jesse Egbert, a corpus linguist at Northern Arizona University and Clark Cunningham, a law professor who did work in law and linguistics from the late 1980s through the mid-1990s (link, link, link, link), including co-authoring an article with Chuck Fillmore that was what really opened my eyes to the power of linguistics in analyzing issues of word meaning.

Clark disappeared from the law-and-corpus-linguistics scene shortly after a burst of work in the mid90s, but happily the prodigal son has returned. He was at last year's Law and Corpus Linguistics Conference, and I'm looking forward to seeing him again at this year's conference next week. And in the meantime, he and Jesse Egbert have filed an amicus brief in the one of the Emolument Clause lawsuits against President Trump. (There is also an accompanying paper.)

The plaintiffs in the various lawsuits argue that as a result Trump's business interests—especially his interest in the Trump International Hotel in Washington, D.C. Trump is violating the Foreign Emolument Clause and the Presidential Emolument Clause of the U.S. Constitution. The first of these provisions prohibits any "person holding any office of profit or trust under [the United States]" from "accept[ing]… any present, emolument, office, or title, of any kind whatever, from any king, prince, or foreign state" without Congressional consent. And the second prohibits the President from receiving "any…emolument" from the United States of any of the states other than his official compensation.The plaintiffs contend that Trump's income from the hotel includes revenue derived from business at the hotel from foreign governments (and I assume from the federal government or U.S. state governments), and that he is therefore accepting and receiving "emolument" from the forbidden sources.

From the Post article:

For Trump to have violated the Constitution, it requires his businesses' acceptance of foreign money to be understood as “emoluments.” But that is not a word that is widely in use today, nor has the clause been tested frequently in courts.

Trump’s legal team has pointed to some 18th-century dictionaries to argue for a narrow definition of an emolument as a profit specifically "arising from an office or employ” — i.e. something leveraged by a position of power. The payments to Trump by foreign entities staying at his hotel do not qualify, his attorneys argue, because they are separate from his work as president. The attorneys general argued for a broader definition that includes any benefit, advantage or profit, regardless of official actions.

The U.S. district judge sided with the attorneys general after a Georgetown University law professor studied many more dictionaries written at the time and found they favored the broader definition.

That decision is under appeal, but now a new study submitted as an amicus brief in the case bolsters it, using a much-broader survey of how the word was used in the late-1700s than even the dictionary study.

And from the brief:

[Cunningham and Egbert] accessed every text in COFEA [Corpus of Founding Era American English] in which emolument appeared – over 2500 examples of actual usage – and analyzed all of these texts using three different computerized search methods. The researchers found no evidence that emolument had a distinct narrow meaning of “profit arising from an office or employ.” All three analyses indicated just the opposite: emolument was consistently used and understood as a general and inclusive term.

A common validity problem with existing scholarship about the meaning of emolument is the tendency to begin with the unquestioned assumption that there were two distinct meanings for emolument in 18thcentury America, then to frame the analysis narrowly to determine which of the two meanings was understood at the time to apply to the Emolument Clauses. However, this assumption – which frames the arguments of the parties in this case – has no scientific basis and, indeed, is disproved by the linguistic research reported in this brief.

Linguists generally consider dictionaries an unreliable source for scientific research of actual usage. In [Cunningham and Egbert's] view, if the full universe of possibilities is limited a priori by the lexicographer(s) who created a particular dictionary, the subsequent research is likely be biased from start to finish. This is a particularly serious risk when relying on 18thcentury dictionaries. Definitions found in dictionaries available during America’s Founding Era – even in the most respected and widely used version, Samuel Johnson’s Dictionary of the English Language published in 1755 – generally reflected the ideas of a single author or were simply copied from other dictionaries. The 18thcentury dictionaries contain no information on the relative frequencies of use for different word senses and thus provide no basis for determining whether a meaning was ordinary or typical, on the one hand, or rare and unusual, on the other.

[Cunningham and Egbert] proceeded directly with their corpus-based study of the word, without allowing their research to be framed by assumptions – from dictionaries or any other source – about the possible meaning or meanings of emolument in the Founding Era. They used computer-based quantitative methods of linguistic analysis, combined with qualitive review of actual texts, to develop hypotheses about the ways emolument was used and understood that could be subjected to empirical testing.

For the details of findings, download the brief, the paper, or both.


The plot thickens. From law professor Carissa Byrne Hessick, at PrawfsBlawg: "Corpus Linguistics Comes to the Fourth Circuit (and that’s not a good thing!)"

As you can no doubt guess from the title of her post, Hessick is a critic of the use of corpus linguistics. If your interested in what she's had to say previously, I'm providing links to what she's written on the subject, and to my posts responding to her (and pursuing topics generated by my responses.

Corpus Linguistics and Criminal Law (PrawfsBlawg Sept. 6, 2017)
More on Corpus Linguistics and the Criminal Law (PrawfsBlawg Sept. 11, 2017)
Corpus Linguistics Re-Redux (PrawfsBlawg Sept. 25, 2017)
Corpus Linguistics and the Criminal Law (pdf) (BYU Law Review; nominally Aug. 2017)

Goldfarb (posts on LAWnLinguistics)
Some comments on Hessick on corpus linguistics (Sept. 13, 2017)
Meaning in the framework of corpus linguistics (September 21, 2017)
More on the relevance of frequency data: Responding to Steinberg (January 2, 2018)
Responding further to Hessick on corpus linguistics (January 19, 2018)
Corpus linguistics: Empiricism and frequency (March 22, 2018)
Corpus linguistics and empiricism: A Twitter exchange (March 24, 2018)
“Empirical” doesn’t necessarily mean “definitively verifiable.” (April 2, 2018)

More to come.




  1. Kate Gladstone said,

    January 29, 2019 @ 8:35 pm

    Re: “the prodigal son has returned” — I’ve noticed that most native speakers of English nowadays use “prodigal” as a synonym for “runaway” rather than as a synonym for “spendthrift”: probably because of hearing or reading the New Testament story whose headline (in the KJV) uses this word, and guessing wrong about what the word referred to. Should I change my own usage to agree with that misunderstanding?

  2. Barbara Phillips Long said,

    January 30, 2019 @ 1:30 am

    @ Kate Gladstone — You may well change your usage, but only because "prodigal" is now a skunked word for you. (See Bryan Garner's definition of skunked.) "Garner's Modern American Usage" explains the traditional meaning and the movement of the word toward the "runaway" usage. The evolving usage is common among the people I know and so I have used the word that way. Sorry.

    There are words I avoid in my writing because they are too skunked for me to use, such as "decimated" and the "gauntlet/gantlet" pair. I console myself by admiring the correct use of gantlet when I see it, but also by delighting in new vocabulary items like "hangry," which I find wonderfully descriptive.

    And, back to the main topic — I was so pleased to see that article in the Washington Post. I hope the courts will seriously study the research.

  3. loonquawl said,

    January 30, 2019 @ 3:03 am

    I acquired a big chunk of my english vocabulary by inference, i.e. i never looked up the definition and instead inferred the meaning from context. Thus i was now surprised to hear that prodigal was a synonym for runaway, as i had always believed it to mean 'favored, thought to be talented', possibly colored a bit by the similarity to 'prodigy'.

  4. AntC said,

    January 30, 2019 @ 8:24 am

    @loonquawl: that's a terrible way to acquire vocabulary. For heck's sake use a dictionary before you seriously insult somebody, or kill somebody by giving out wrong information. Do they not have ironic uses of words in your native language? How do you know the 'context' you're hearing is not ironic if you're not sure of the meaning of the word?

    'Prodigal' is cognate with 'prodigy'. In the case of 'prodigal son', it's the sense of a prodigiously bad wastrel. (But yes, 'prodigy' and 'prodigious' these days usually carry a positive connotation; hence the modern misunderstanding of the biblical parable. Plus of course the usual 'kids these days!')

    @Kate: if you're using "prodigal", I'd include an additional adjective to show your (dis-)approbation. BTW I would say that "prodigal" alone is not a synonym for "spendthrift". Mozart was a prodigal musician. Trump is a prodigal liar, etc, etc.

  5. Andrew Taylor said,

    January 30, 2019 @ 10:47 am

    I'm very happy to have learned about that meaning of "skunked words". Continuing the biblical theme, one of mine is "manger", which I can only think of as a kind of baby's cradle (as in the nativity as described in Luke 2, and in the carol "Away in a Manger"), rather than as an amimals' feeding trough.

  6. Thomas Shaw said,

    January 30, 2019 @ 11:13 am

    @Kate Gladstone: My interpretation was always that "prodigal son" as a set phrase refers to the parable, so the meaning doesn't come from the word prodigal, but from the story of the son (who happened to be prodigal) who left the family and then returned, and was welcomed. Note that NG referred to Cunningham as a "prodigal son [who has] returned", not as, e.g. a "prodigal linguist".

  7. Thomas Shaw said,

    January 30, 2019 @ 11:16 am

    (Of course, it still may be that most people who use this phrase don't know the meaning of "prodigal" on its own, but I wouldn't take this "prodigal son" usage as a sign that the user doesn't know the meaning of prodigal alone.)

  8. Bruno Estigarribia said,

    January 30, 2019 @ 12:00 pm

    @AntC: Seriously? Are you being sarcastic? Because your comment to loonquawl that that is a terrible way to acquire vocabulary is a little… hmmm… asinine? That is precisely how native speakers learn the vast majority of their vocabulary. Or do you think parents walk around with a dictionary to show their children? And what about the children's peers? I sincerely hope you were trying to be sarcastic.

  9. Bob Ladd said,

    January 30, 2019 @ 12:29 pm

    @Bruno Estigarribia: Basically I agree with your reaction to AntC, but s/he does have a point, which is that it's easy for non-native speakers acquiring vocabulary in this naturalistic way to fail to acquire social and stylistic overtones. I lived in Germany in the early 1980s and acquired the verb entsorgen (which refers roughly to disposing of waste) without realising until much later that it was a fairly new* bureaucratic euphemism (it literally means something like 'de-worry') frequently used in discussions of radioactive waste from nuclear power stations. I just thought it was a regular word for waste disposal. So conceivably AntC knows of a case where somebody inadvertently insulted someone through this kind of incomplete acquisition of the full range of a word's associations. But otherwise I'd say your comment is right on target.

    *Duden says it was first listed in 1973; Google n-gram shows it taking off in the early 1980s.

  10. Joe Fineman said,

    January 30, 2019 @ 9:56 pm

    She paid a professor a large emolument
    To explain to her what his ponderous volume meant.
    — Ogden Nash

  11. Bruno Estigarribia said,

    January 30, 2019 @ 10:42 pm

    @Bob Ladd. That is undoubtedly true, but I am not too troubled by it because (1) this happens too to children in first language acquisition, which is the source of much merriment to us researchers, and (2) you eventually learned the correct usage/connotation of "entsorgen" somehow (maybe yoy DID look it up in a dictionary!). So all's well that ends well.

  12. AntC said,

    January 30, 2019 @ 11:17 pm

    @Bruno I'm being perfectly serious. Native speakers acquire vocabulary as children in what is an asymmetric learning situation: adults know the meanings of the words; if kids don't understand, or misuse a word, an adult will correct them. (Then yes, the adult is precisely a walking dictionary.)

    EFL learners learn vocabulary in an asymmetric situation: a classroom where the teacher is authorised to correct them (and is expected not to deploy ironic usages, except where copiously signalled).

    From @loonquawl's comment, the learning was not in that asymmetric situation. So my counsel stands.

    And yes I have plenty of examples of people who've 'just picked up words'/never checked the meaning and got it wrong. Somebody in their 50's, a native English speaker (well, grew up in a Welsh environment) who thought that "infamous" meant the opposite of "famous", that is: unknown, obscure. They argued with somebody (not me) at length at a dinner party. It got quite heated (and insulting) before I realised they didn't understand that "infamous" is the opposite of "famously good", i.e. "famously bad", i.e. notorious, and not at all obscure.

    I could add many more examples where (especially) non-native speakers haven't picked up that some word is polysemous: they're secure in knowing one meaning (probably its most common usage); they think that is the only meaning.

    And what about the children's peers?

    Isn't that precisely why the young are such linguistic innovators? A kid mis-uses a word ('mis-' going by its dictionary sense). Other kids, whose knowledge of the word is also a bit shaky, but whose apprehension of the speaker's meaning in context is spot-on, pick it up: it trends. Wicked!

    And isn't such mis-understanding what's happening with our case in point 'prodigal'? Somebody heard it without knowing the biblical parable, and thought it just means "runaway".

    Indeed it could explain quite a bit of the 'skunked' vocabulary. My particular bugbear is "oxymoronic". Because it rhymes with a veiled insult, some journalist picked it up to mean 'exhibiting a contradiction in terms': the speaker is too stupid to understand they're talking nonsense. But that isn't (or wasn't) what the dictionary says. And so I've lost a useful way to say "very cleverly counter-posing two meanings in tension, so as to intensify them both". As in 'deafening silence'. Or as in 'bitter-sweet', or 'sharply dull', which is approximately the etymology of the word. So the word has completely lost its sharp quality, and through clicheed over-use has become dull and useless.

  13. AntC said,

    January 30, 2019 @ 11:50 pm

    Example of a polysemous word that nearly got people killed:

    An aircraft repair manual (to be issued worldwide) that said: inspect the widget, and if worn, replace it.

    "replace" as in put it back, in its worn state? Please explain (to a non-native speaker) why that isn't the intended sense. Do not appeal to 'common sense'.

    (Possibly that's apocryphal, but it was quoted to me on a course for accurate technical writing aimed at non-native speakers. The instructor claimed they found it in a manual they'd been asked to review, cross-fingers that was before it got issued.)

  14. Barbara Phillips Long said,

    January 31, 2019 @ 12:36 am

    How common was dictionary ownership and use in the era when the U.S. Constitution was written? What books did most households own — did the shelves include Bibles, dictionaries, atlases, books on housekeeping or medicine, primers and other instructional books, popular fiction, carpentry, farming and animal husbandry texts, and so on? Did businesses routinely have dictionaries on hand for clerical workers to consult?

    If dictionaries were uncommon volumes, then I would think that the limited availability of dictionaries would support the reliance on the corpus rather than the dictionary definitions. In addition, it seems unlikely any of the dictionary writers at the time would have had as large a corpus to work with, even if those writers relied on researching actual usage to inform their work product.

  15. AntC said,

    January 31, 2019 @ 12:38 am

    [overhearing and inferring the meaning from context] is precisely how native speakers learn the vast majority of their vocabulary.

    For those of us who've not drunk the Chomskyan Faculty of Language kool-aid: that is an error-prone and highly inefficient way to acquire anything. Consider how long it takes for infants to become competent speakers, and how many mistakes they make along the way, despite the copious repetitive input from adults around them — that is, compared to how quickly you can learn a language in an intensive course. The ambient input data is just terrible for targeted learning.

    You don't mention in which subject you're a researcher, but it seems not to be child language acquisition, nor parenting.

  16. Barbara Phillips Long said,

    January 31, 2019 @ 12:50 am

    @Thomas Shaw —

    So could the "runaway" meaning then be idiomatic, the idiom being "prodigal son" rather than the word "prodigal"?

    And then… would the use of "prodigal" as "runaway" be viewed as a clipping of the idiom rather than an altered meaning of the original term? This would be a different path to the same outcome — an additional or altered meaning.

  17. AntC said,

    January 31, 2019 @ 1:25 am

    @Bruno If I might ask, how did you acquire your understanding of the meaning of "asinine"?

    Have you checked a dictionary? Or am I to be forgiving that you only overheard it in jocular contexts, so you don't realise how offensive you are being? The second sentence of my first response applies.

  18. GH said,

    January 31, 2019 @ 4:45 am

    I do know the meaning of "asinine", and I heartily second Bruno's reply. I also found your initial comment offensive.

    To be able to function with a less-than-perfect grasp of the language, learners – whether children or second-language students – must rely on context and inference to fill in gaps in their knowledge and learn new things. Going to a dictionary to look up anything they don't know is neither efficient nor feasible (nor foolproof: someone looking up "prodigal" in a dictionary will not find out the meaning of "prodigal son").

    Yes, they will make mistakes, but that's a given regardless. You think someone who once looked "replace" and learned that, in that particular case, it meant "put back in its former position" will be more likely to remember the alternative sense than someone who has picked it up from usage?

    Besides, by using a word incorrectly and discovering your mistake, you memorize it far more firmly than by just looking it up.

    Obviously, in a high-stakes situation it becomes important to double-check your understanding rather than rely on what you guess the meaning to be, but those occasions are rare.

    These points strike me as so self-evident that even to make them feels patronizing, but apparently it is necessary.

  19. Philip Taylor said,

    January 31, 2019 @ 10:58 am

    AntC ("I'm being perfectly serious. Native speakers acquire vocabulary as children in what is an asymmetric learning situation: adults know the meanings of the words; if kids don't understand, or misuse a word, an adult will correct them. (Then yes, the adult is precisely a walking dictionary)").

    I'm sorry, I don't agree. Apart from words that we learn very early on (i.e., are taught by our parents), and those that we learn from picture books with the aid of our parents, I do not think that we acquire most of our vocabulary in that way — most words, I believe, we are left to infer for ourselves, although a good teacher will often seek to ensure that more difficult words (such as "contemporary" — a real example from when I was about ten) are properly understood. In particular, I do not think that parents or teachers offer many insights into what abstract concepts such as "love", "hate", "affection" mean. Which has often led me to wonder to what extent we actually share definitions for abstract concepts such as these, and to what extent each of us forms his/her own mental model, which may well only partially overlap with the mental model formed by someone else.

  20. Philip Taylor said,

    January 31, 2019 @ 11:04 am

    GH ("someone looking up "prodigal" in a dictionary will not find out the meaning of "prodigal son""). Not necessarily true. The OED certainly glosses the phrase :

    2. Of a person: that has lived a reckless or extravagant life away from home, but subsequently made a repentant return. Also more generally and fig.: that has gone astray; errant, wayward; wandering. Frequently in prodigal son (also daughter, child), with allusion to Luke 15:11–32 (cf. sense B. 2). Also in extended use.

  21. eub said,

    January 31, 2019 @ 3:53 pm

    @AntC "Prodigal' is cognate with 'prodigy'. In the case of 'prodigal son', it's the sense of a prodigiously bad wastrel."

    An understandable inference from context, but does your dictionary concur? Mine (OSED) has "prodigus" and "prodigium" with the same lavish / abnormal separation that English has. Was the former ever in Latin seen to display the "prodigy of lavishness" structure you propose?

  22. David L. said,

    February 2, 2019 @ 1:51 am

    Philip Taylor: Thanks for quoting the OED. From this thread, I had thought my understanding of "prodigal" odd, but that's exactly what I thought it meant. The dictionaries St. Google pulls up only list meanings/uses I'm unfamiliar with. I find that rather strange, since the Stones' version of Prodigal Son was so well known in the day.

  23. Adrian Morgan said,

    February 6, 2019 @ 6:24 am

    As another example of a word whose popular interpretation is inferred from a Biblical passage, how about graven, as in images?

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