• earmark •
Pronunciation: ir-mahrk • Hear it!
Part of Speech: Noun
Meaning: 1. A notch or other mark on the ears of cattle as a sign of ownership, a stamp of ownership. 2. A budget item for a special purpose, most notably for a pork-barrel project that appeals to the constituents of a member of a congress or parliament. 3. An identifying feature, as 'a car with all the earmarks of a classic'.
Notes: Today's word is one that has drifted a pretty far piece away from its original meaning. Compound nouns seldom have derivational families and earmark is no exception. However, since this word may be used as a verb, both the past (earmarked) and present participles (earmarking) may be used as adjectives and earmarking may be used as a noun.
In Play: Since the original word's application is limited to cattle, few of us hear it anymore. However, the extended sense if often heard in sentenced like this: "The melody line running over a slow-walking bass line is an earmark of jazz styling." As often we hear it referring to budgetary items: "That year the budget contained 11,000 earmarks worth over $15 billion."
Word History: Today's Good Word is obviously a compound noun made up of ear + mark. Ear, along with its cousins, German Ohr, Dutch oor, Danish and Norwegian øre, all descended from Proto-Indo-European ous- "ear" with rhoticism. Without rhoticism it arises in Russian ucho (plural uši), Greek aus, and Lithuanian ausis. Mark comes down from PIE merg- "boundary, border", which are often marked with signs. This this word came Dutch merk "mark, brand", German Marke "mark", Danish mærke "brand, mark", and Swedish mark. Latin margo "edge, border, margin" and Icelandic mark "mark" share the same PIE source. (We owe a thought of gratitude to Jeffrey Beard, who is working this month from his parents' home, for reminding me of today's exceptionally Good Word.)