The word “earmarks” has been much in the news this week. I don’t know if it has been in wide use in the past but the other night it caught my ear. I got to wondering exactly what an earmark is so I got out my new dictionary (another welcome Christmas gift) and looked it up.
Used as a noun, an earmark is a mark or brand put on the ear of a domestic animal to show ownership. It is also defined as an identifying mark or feature or characteristic sign.
Used as a verb, earmark means to mark the ears of livestock for identification, to set a distinctive or informative mark upon, or to set aside or reserve for a special purpose or recipient. I believe it is this last definition which is being used when people discuss earmarks in the spending plan or national budget.
I think the use of earmarks to mark property is an old practice although my dictionary doesn’t give that kind of information. I have read in the Old Testament that Hebrew slaves were to be released after some stated number of years of service but if the slave said he didn’t want to leave his master, he was taken to the doorpost and his ear run through with an awl to mark him as belonging to his master for his lifetime.
How did the meaning move from marking livestock or slaves to items in a budget? Does the budget have a lifespan to it? Does a budgetary earmark exist for the life of that budget?