Emollient - emolument

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Do not confuse the two tetrasyllabic (four-syllable) words emollient and emolument, in the speaking of which only the third syllable differs. Both are more likely to be found in academic writing than in everyday conversation: it is important for academics, therefore, not to confuse them - and students should think of themselves as apprentice academics.

  • Emollient (pronounced 'imm-MOLL-i-ent', IPA: /ɪ 'mɒ lɪ ənt/), as an adjective, means 'softening'. (There is a trend developing to pronounce it as if the second syllable rhymed with 'roll' and 'poll', rather than with 'doll' and 'Polly' (IPA: /ɪ 'məʊ lɪ ənt/). This trend should be resisted: many academics would regard it as an error.) In current medical and pharmaceutical usage, it is applied to 'softening, soothing and smoothing the skin': as a noun, 'an emollient' is any preparation that is designed to do this.
Etymological note: emollient is derived from Latin e(x)- as an intensifier + mollis 'soft' - which also gives us mollusc ('a soft-bodied animal [such as a slug or octopus], often with a shell [such as a mussel, clam or snail]') and mollify ('to soften the temper of [someone else]', 'to appease', 'to calm [someone else] down', 'to pacify').
  • An emolument (commonly in the plural emoluments) is 'a reward for employment' - any remuneration in the form of wage, salary, stipend or other direct payment, and also any such benefits as living space, meals, transport etc supplied by an employer to an employee. It is pronounced 'imm-MOLL-you-ment', IPA: /ɪ 'mɒl jʊ mənt/. (Famously, the Poet Laureate's sole emolument was a "butt [= cask, about 108 gallons] of sack or canary [wine]", estimated at around 600 bottles. Nowadays the emoluments also include an annual salary of £5,000.)
OED (1891) has a fine note, for connoisseurs of academic nit-picking, on the etymology of emolument, from "Latin ēmŏlŏ-, ēmŏlŭ­mentum, profit, advantage; in most Latin Dicts. said to be [from] ēmōlīrī, to bring out by effort. On this view, however, the quantity ought to be ēmōlŭmentum; the quantity evidenced in Latin poetry points to derivation from ēmŏlere to grind out. Possibly two distinct Latin words of the same spelling may have been confused."