The Grammarphobia Blog

The pork in “pork barrel”

Q: A WNYC caller asked Pat about the origin of “pork barrel.” Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable (an invaluable resource) says it’s “an allusion to old plantation days when slaves assembled at the pork barrel for the allowance of pork reserved for them.”

A: We’d describe Brewer’s as an entertaining resource rather an invaluable one. Some of its etymologies are questionable, more folklore than fact.

In fact, Susie Dent, editor of the latest edition of the reference book, acknowledges that Brewer’s “is not entirely objective—even after nineteen editions the choices (and voices) of its author are still at its heart.”

In her foreword to the 19th edition, Dent writes that Ebenezer Brewer “sought his information from the edges of the traditional canon of knowledge.”

She quotes Brewer, who published the first edition in 1870, as explaining that he gathered “jottings of odds and ends of history, which historians leave in the cold or only incidentally mention in the course of their narratives.”

Interestingly, Brewer himself (1810-1897) was not responsible for that jotting about “slaves assembled at the pork barrel.” It was added to the dictionary, without a source, in the 20th century.

We suspect that the source was “A Little History of Pork,” an article by Chester Collins Maxey in the December 1919 issue of the journal National Municipal Review.

Maxey compares the “stampede” of members of Congress to pass pork-barrel bills to “slaves rushing the pork barrel,” but he doesn’t say the political usage is derived from plantation days. And we’ve found no authoritative source that makes such a claim.

So where does “pork barrel” come from? When the phrase first entered English in the early 1700s, it referred simply to a barrel for storing pork, but the Oxford English Dictionary says that sense is now rare.

The OED’s earliest written example is from a 1705 entry in the public records of the Colony of Connecticut: “All barrells made for tarr and cyder shall be of the same gage as pork and beeff barrels, viz thirtie one gallons and a halfe.”

The word sleuth Barry Popik notes on his Big Apple website that the “pork barrel was a prized culinary possession in the 19th century, able to feed many mouths.”

In the 1860s, “pork barrel” took on a new, figurative sense. Edward Everett Hale uses the phrase positively in “The Children of the Public,” an 1863 short story, to refer to public spending by the government for the benefit of its citizens.

In the early 1870s, the OED says, the phrase “pork barrel” took on the political sense of government funds “appropriated for local projects designed to please the electorate or legislators and win votes.”

The dictionary’s first example is from the Sept. 13, 1873, issue of the Defiance (Ohio) Democrat: “Recollecting their many previous visits to the public pork-barrel … this hue-and-cry over the salary grab … puzzles quite as much as it alarms them.”

Around the same time, the OED notes, the word “pork” took on the slang sense in the US of government funds or benefits “dispensed by politicians in order to gain favour with patrons or constituents.”

Here’s an example from the Feb. 28, 1879, issue of the Congressional Record: “St. Louis is going to have some of the ‘pork’ indirectly; but it will not do any good.”

We’ll end with an excerpt from the 1913 autobiography of Senator Robert M. La Follette Sr., a Republican senator from Wisconsin and a Progressive Party presidential candidate:

“My first speech in Congress was made on April 22, 1886. It was on the so-called ‘pork-barrel’ bill for river and harbor appropriations. I was then, as I am now, heartily in favor of generous expenditures of national funds for waterways and harbors, but the scramble for unwarranted appropriations was then and is now not short of scandalous.”

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