The Grammarphobia Blog

Lend me your earmarks

Q: Would you consider discussing the origin of the political term “earmark”? I hear it all the time, but I can’t find its derivation.

A: The word “earmark” comes from the centuries-old practice of notching the ears of livestock for identification.

The noun dates from 1523 (spelled “eare-marke”) and the verb from 1591, according to the Oxford English Dictionary. (These citations represent the first published references that have been found.)

The use of the verb “earmark” to refer to setting aside funds for a specific purpose dates from 1868, according to the OED. Interestingly, none of the dictionaries I consult the most include a similar definition for the noun.

Both The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.) and Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.) define the noun “earmark” just as an identifying characteristic or a mark on the ear of an animal.

When I googled “earmark,” however, I found numerous examples of the noun used in the U.S. political sense: a provision inserted in legislation to finance a lawmaker’s pet project or organization or whatever. It’s only a matter of time before dictionaries get on the case.

Though not every earmark is pork, I’m told, it strikes me as fitting that the term comes from notching the ears of pigs and other livestock.

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