Meanings: “Earmark”

June 13, 2011

From Inside Higher Education:

Earmarks in a New Form?

“Remember how the Republican-led House of Representatives was going to eliminate earmarks? According to The Boston Globe, the House has allowed hundreds of millions of special authorizations (which in many ways resemble earmarks and which in many cases could benefit individual colleges and universities) to be inserted into the military spending bill. The authorizations are not as specific as earmarks and theoretically are open to competitions. But the Globe noted that many are written with language used by lawmakers to previously insert earmarks into the bills to benefit institutions in their districts, and that the language gives those institutions an apparent advantage, should the measures become law.”

The etymology is straightforward:

late 15c. (n.); 1590s (v.), from ear (1) + mark (1). Originally a cut or mark in the ear of sheep and cattle, serving as a sign of ownership (also a punishment of certain criminals); first recorded 1570s in figurative sense “stamp of ownership.” Meaning “to set aside money for a special purpose” is attested by 1868.

Nevertheless, Merriam -Webster added “earmark” in its current, political sense  only in 2009.  According to a story in the Los Angeles Times,

Merriam-Webster has added a definition of the term “earmark” to the latest edition of its dictionary: “A provision in congressional legislation that allocates a specified amount of money for a specific project, program or organization.” However, no specific examples are provided, such as perhaps the most famous earmark of all — the $223-million bridge linking Ketchikan, Alaska, to an island with an airport and 50 people, a project derided as the “bridge to nowhere.”

Will we need a new term?

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About Doug Bennett

Doug Bennett is Emeritus President and Professor of Politics at Earlham College. He has a wife, Ellen, and two sons, Tommy (born 1984) and Robbie (born 2003).
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