remunerate

This word confuses quite a lot of people. It’s as though it’s been stirred or something – remunerate? Shouldn’t that be renumerate? As in numeral? Or perhaps related to Latin nummus, “coin”? We’re talking about paying here, after all, settling accounts.

Well, that may be, but we’re not talking about it on the basis of numbers or coins. It’s a question of giving here. The Latin source is munus, “gift” – and the re made it mean, originally, “give back” (there was once also a word munerate, but that one has gone by the wayside). So this word is related to munificent. It’s also related, just incidentally, to municipal, because the same root munus could also refer to “office” and “official duty” – making it also the source of communal and community. The connection between gifts and offices is obligation and being obliging.

So this word might lead a person to think of giving back to the community, for instance. Remunerate can of course refer to any kind of payment (and especially wages), but when we think of the benefits we receive from our community, and the obligations we have to help maintain it and its benefits, we really ought to be so obliging as to think about giving back rather than holding back. (I cannot hold back from observing also that anyone who thinks that their community can maintain or increase services while receiving less remuneration must be innumerate – though, alas, such people also seem almost innumerable.)

This word is, however, in the main a ten-dollar word for “pay” – especially “pay wages”. And its far-more-common noun derivative remuneration is correspondingly a ten-dollar word for “payment” – or the noun “pay”. You give your work, you get money back for it. Do you get fair pay, or just fair words? That depends on your employer, of course. But I am put in mind of a scene from Shakespeare’s Love’s Labour’s Lost. Costard (a comic servile knave) is set to a task by a rather pompous fellow, who presses some money into his hand and says, “There is remuneration; for the best ward of mine honour is rewarding my dependents.” Once the fellow has left, Costard inspects it and says, “Now will I look to his remuneration. Remuneration! O! that’s the Latin word for three farthings: three farthings, remuneration. ‘What’s the price of this inkle?’ ‘One penny.’ ‘No, I’ll give you a remuneration:’ why, it carries it. Remuneration! why, it is a fairer name than French crown. I will never buy and sell out of this word.” (A farthing was a quarter of a penny.)

Later in the scene, Costard is set to another task by another, ironically more munificent, fellow, who gives him a shilling and says, “There’s thy guerdon: go.” Costard’s response: “Gardon, O sweet gardon! better than remuneration; a ’leven-pence farthing better. Most sweet gardon! I will do it, sir, in print. Gardon! remuneration!” Ha – marry, quite contrary, no? How does the guerdon go!

The best thing I can think of to help a person remember that it’s remunerate rather than renumerate (and remuneration rather than renumeration) is to think of money (not nummy), although it’s not actually a related word. Or you can think of your municipal community! For me, I am actually put in mind of French remuer, “stir” – also unrelated, but it is fun on occasion to mix it up a bit.

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