The drafters of the US Constitution probably mean a present of money, or of valuable items that could be converted to money, such as jewels, artwork, or the like. That does no mean that the clause's meaning is limited to those categories, however.
The Emolument Clause has rarely if ever been enforced, and as far as I know no clear definition of the meaning of "present" in the clause has been established in case law. Thus then "ordinary meaning" of the word would apply.
Honors or recognitions that carry neither legal rights or benefits, nor associated monetary payments, and are not "titles of nobility" are probably not "presents" for purposes of this clause. But one cannot be sure until some official receives such a "gift"., and the act is challenged in court under this clause, and a federal court rules on the matter.
Note that the Constitution is a statute, and rules of statutory interpretation apply.
Ordinary meaning rule is a principle of statutory interpretation that when a word is not defined in a statute or other legal instrument, the court normally construes it in accordance with its ordinary or natural meaning. This rule guides courts faced with litigation that turns on the meaning of a term not defined by the statute, or on that of a word found within a definition itself.
According to this rule, statutes are to be interpreted using the ordinary meaning of the language of the statute unless a statute explicitly defines some of its terms otherwise.
The plain meaning rule, also known as the literal rule, is one of three rules of statutory construction traditionally applied by English courts. > ...
The plain meaning rule dictates that statutes are to be interpreted using the ordinary meaning of the language of the statute. In other words, a statute is to be read word for word and is to be interpreted according to the ordinary meaning of the language, unless a statute explicitly defines some of its terms otherwise or unless the result would be cruel or absurd. Ordinary words are given their ordinary meaning, technical terms are given their technical meaning, and local, cultural terms are recognized as applicable.
A fundamental canon of statutory construction is that, unless otherwise defined, words will be interpreted as taking their ordinary, contemporary, common meaning. Burns v. Alcala, 420 U. S. 575, 420 U. S. 580-581 (1975). Therefore, we look to the ordinary meaning of the term "bribery" at the time Congress enacted the statute in 1961.
in considering the meaning of particular words and phrases, language canons call for determining the sense in which terms are being used, that is, whether words or phrases are meant as terms of art with specialized meanings or are meant in the ordinary, “dictionary” sense. Other language canons direct that all words of a statute be given effect if possible, that a term used more than once in a statute ordinarily be given the same meaning throughout, and that specific statutory language ordinarily trumps conflicting general language. “Ordinarily” is a necessary caveat, since any of these “canons” may give way if context points toward a contrary meaning.
In order correctly to interpret legislation the words of the text have to be understood in context. It is often said that the words of a provision are to be given their ordinary or "natural" meaning.
Courts generally assume that the words of a statute mean what an “ordinary” or “reasonable” person would understand them to mean.6 Moreover, some courts adhere to the principle that if the words of a statute are clear and unambiguous, the court need not inquire any
further into the meaning of the statute. Thus, you can often begin by looking at the ordinary or reasonable understanding of a statute’s text based on your own experience and understanding of language and grammar.
“Ordinary meaning” plays a crucial role in interpreting most legal texts: from contracts and wills, to treaties and the U.S. Constitution.
See, e.g., Cal. Civ. Code § 1644 (2018) (“The words of a contract are to be understood in their ordinary and popular sense . . . .”); Cal. Prob. Code § 21122 (2018) (“The words of an instrument are to be given their ordinary and grammatical meaning unless the intention to use them in another sense is clear and their intended meaning can be ascertained.”); Curtis J. Mahoney, Note, Treaties as Contracts: Textualism, Contract Theory, and the Interpretation of Treaties, 116 Yale L.J. 824, 829–32 (2007) (describing the Supreme Court’s recent approach to treaty interpretation, which often focuses on the plain meaning of terms in a treaty); Lawrence B. Solum, The Constraint Principle: Original Meaning and Constitutional Practice (Apr. 3, 2019), https://ssrn.com/abstract=2940215 [https://perma.cc/P7JR-9RDM] (unpublished manuscript) (“The dominant strain of contemporary originalism emphasizes the public meaning of the constitutional text . . . .”).
Normatively, the doctrine often finds justification for “ordinary” language principles based on notice, predictability, and the notion that the public should be able to read, understand, and rely upon legal texts.
Increasingly, the Supreme Court has emphasized that the interpretive process begins by giving statutory language its ordinary meaning.
See, e.g., Bostock v. Clayton County, 140 S. Ct. 1731, 1738 (2020) (“This court normally interprets a statute in accord with the ordinary public meaning of its terms . . . .”); Food Mktg. Inst. v. Argus Leader Media, 139 S. Ct. 2356, 2364 (2019) (“In statutory interpretation disputes, a court’s proper starting point lies in a careful examination of the ordinary meaning and structure of the law itself.”).
For some, interpretation begins and ends with ordinary meaning. Modern textualists believe that ordinary meaning should significantly constrain interpretation; other considerations enter only if ordinary meaning is indeterminate.
See, e.g., Victoria Nourse, Textualism 3.0: Statutory Interpretation After Justice Scalia, 70 Ala. L. Rev. 667, 669 (2019) (acknowledging but questioning the premise that ordinary meaning constrains as between results in a case).
Purposivists agree that ordinary meaning is at least relevant to interpretation, See, e.g., Eskridge, Interpreting Law, supra note 3, at 35 (“There are excellent reasons for the primacy of the ordinary meaning rule.”). alongside other criteria including legislative intent (typically ascertained via legislative history).
See Robert A. Katzmann, Judging Statutes 31–35 (2014) (explaining the purposivist approach to statutory interpretation).
Few deny that ordinary meaning is regularly deployed by all members of the current Supreme Court.
As Justice Elena Kagan famously declared of the Court, “We’re all textualists now.” Harvard Law School, The Scalia Lecture: A Dialogue with Justice Kagan on the Reading of Statutes, YouTube, at 08:29 (Nov. 25, 2015), https://youtu.be/dpEtszFT0Tg (on file with the Columbia Law Review). This statement depends upon an essential ambiguity: whether one begins or ends with the text.
Consider the Court’s recent landmark decision in Bostock v. Clayton County. 11 140 S. Ct. 1731.
The Justices divided sharply, but all the opinions—both the majority and two dissents—invoked “ordinary meaning” in determining whether the term “sex” in Title VII’s antidiscrimination provision includes sexual orientation and transgender discrimination.