THE AMATEUR WORD NERD: Earmark this one

By Barbara McAlister

Word of the Day: Earmark

Politicians talk about earmarking funds all the time, particularly in an election year. It refers to setting aside a specific sum of money for a designated purpose. The term is literal and comes from the ancient practice farmers used to identify their livestock by making a distinctive notch in the ear of their cows, sheep or goats. This practice to mark ownership was around earlier, but the word first appeared in the 1500s. It wasn’t used in the general sense of reserving funds or in the political sense until the late 1800s.
Earmarking sheep and goats is still the law in Iceland, where it remains an important practice because sheep are allowed to roam freely in the summer and mix with livestock from other farms. It has been an island tradition since Iceland’s settlement around 850 A.D. by Vikings. Even though today most Icelandic sheep are also marked with plastic or metal ear tags, a distinctive notch in the animals’ ear continues to identify ownership. The Icelandic legislature has proposed making earmarks optional and tagging mandatory but opponents argue that ear tags are easily changed and thus not an effective safe-guard of ownership. It gives the impression that there is a lot of livestock rustling going on in Iceland, kind of like cattle rustling in the early American west, but it underscores the importance of sheep farming in Iceland where the sheep population outnumbers humans.
Some sources cite the relation of earmarks to the term “pork-barrel spending.” Although the Congressional pastime of pork-barrel spending often involves earmarked funds, there is no evidence that it has anything to do with notching pig’s ears. It would be a satisfying history of the word but it is more likely related to the practice of storing pork in barrels of brine before the introduction of refrigeration