Earmark the funds

This entry is part 1 of the series Common Sayings

Most weeks, I’m posting on my blog about a phrase or common saying, what they mean and how they came about.

I’m working through the alphabet and choosing one saying for each letter.

We often use the term to earmark an object. What do we mean, and how did the word come about?

We may earmark certain cash to be used for a holiday (vacation). Politicians earmark funds to be used in a specific way (and they may even end up used that way too!)

The expression doesn’t only refer to money. The host may earmark the best steak and chop for his guest of honor. A Football coach may earmark a player in his B team to play in the next match involving the A team. A specific area of grazing may be earmarked for the farmer’s show cattle.

An often-quoted phrase, “Tolerance is the earmark of a great soul” is reported as having been said by Jesus, but I cannot find any evidence of it in the Bible.

Origin of earmark

It seems a strange word, but if we separate it into two words, the meaning becomes clear: ear mark.

Before the days when it was a common practice to brand cattle with a hot iron, farmers would cut notches into the ears of cattle, sheep and pigs to set them aside from other cattle. That way, they could be clearly identified.

Today’s methods

This old practice dates back in the UK to at least the 16th century.

Alicia Nijdam creative commons on Wikipedia

Since the 1950’s, farmers in western countries usually fit their farm animals with metal tags fitted to their ears. These contain details of its owner, date of birth, etc.

Creative Commons – Dietmar Temps on Flickr

 In Africa and other third-world countries, ear-marks have gone to crazy lengths like the photo above. They are used as signs of beauty, yet in many instances they designate the tribe to which the wearer belongs.

The figurative use

However, the figurative use that we are familiar with today didn’t begin until the late 19th century. For example, in The Spectator, June 1890 the author used this statement” With large sums ear-marked and accumulating for the extinction of licences.”

I earmark many of my blog posts to appear in later eBooks. How about you? What object do you earmark for a certain use? Share in the comment section below.

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14 comments on “Earmark the funds

    • The first time I saw an African with a huge plate in his ears I was horrified. It looks so heavy and uncomfortable! I haven’t seen much of that in S. Africa among the “white” folk, but certainly it is almost inevitable they’ll have more than one ear-piercing and often in the lip or nose. They’re crazy!

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