TEXT OF INTERVIEW
Steve Chiotakis: Congress is breaking for the Christmas holiday after a lot of lame duck session work. During the course of which, certain words that sound kinda funny come into the political — and economic — lexicon.
It got us wondering where some of those words get their meanings.
Jesse Sheidlower is editor at large at the Oxford-English Dictionary is here to give us an idea of where some of these words came from. Good morning.
Jesse Sheidlower: Good morning.
Chiotakis: So we caught a few buzzwords coming out of Congress this year that, sometimes we have to scratch our heads. Earmark — what does earmark mean? Where did that come from?
Sheidlower: An earmark was originally just what it sounds like: it was a mark on an animal’s ear for identification. You would cut a pig’s ear or a cow’s ear in a particular way and know what farmer it belonged to. But then it became used in a figurative sense, meaning to mark something as one’s own. So if you were talking about a legislative bill or something like that, you were setting aside a particular sum of money for a specific purpose.
Chiotakis: Another word that I’m thinking of and this has something to do with earmarks as well: pork barrel spending. Pork? Where does that come from?
Sheidlower: Pork barrel in the literal sense goes back to around 1700 or so referring to a barrel for storing pork. Pork was one of the more inexpensive meats and was something that would distributed to people, to slaves or to the poor to eat. And this was especially common, again, in the post-Civil War period, and that’s when the figurative sense developed as well, which is referring to the state’s financial resources regarded as a source of distribution, and specifically federal funds appropriated for local projects.
Chiotakis: There’s another word that comes up that we’ve seen time and time again, this year especially: filibuster. Where the minority party can sort of hold up debate in the Senate. Where did that come from?
Sheidlower: Filibuster’s particularly interesting. The word originally refers to a pirate, basically. Someone who engaged in unauthorized warfare against a foreign state. And in the 1850s, the word filibuster referred not just to pirates in general, but specifically to a group of Americans who incited revolution in Latin America to disrupt the state there. So it came from there to mean to sabotage, and specifically, in a political sense to sabotage something by delaying or obstruction as tactics.
Chiotakis: Jesse Sheidlower, editor-at-large of the Oxford English Dictionary, joining us this morning. Jesse, thank you so much.
Sheidlower: Thanks Steve.
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