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Merriam-Webster dictionary adds 'earmark' definition

It's official: The meaning of 'earmark' is tied to congressional spending. Still, critics and defenders of the provisions find the definition lacking.

July 18, 2009|Richard Simon

WASHINGTON — Those who pore over congressional legislation in search of earmarks often have been guided by the "I know it when I see it" maxim that Justice Potter Stewart made famous when the Supreme Court struggled to define pornography.

But now there is an authoritative source they can consult.

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."

Critics of earmarks might find the official definition lacking, preferring they be described as "pork" (which the dictionary defines as "government funds, jobs or favors distributed by politicians to gain political advantage") often sought by campaign contributors, lobbyists and other special interests.

The White House budget office too prefers a more judgmental definition than the linguists. An earmark, it says, "circumvents otherwise applicable merit-based or competitive allocation processes."

Earmark defenders also might quibble with the definition. They defend such spending as a way to show their constituents they're bringing home the bacon.

Still, the addition of the definition shows just how much earmarking became part of the political debate after the spending scandals involving now-incarcerated former Rep. Randy "Duke" Cunningham (R-Rancho Santa Fe) and lobbyist Jack Abramoff, who referred to the House Appropriations Committee as "the favor factory."

Peter A. Sokolowski, Merriam-Webster's editor at large, said the definition was added to the dictionary because of the word's increased use. "We wait to see that a word is clearly going to stay in the language for a long time," he said. "In this case . . . we saw such an increase in use."

Though the term already was in the dictionary -- as a noun meaning "a mark of identification on the ear of an animal" and as a verb indicating "to designate (as funds) for a specific use or owner" -- its use in reference to congressional spending was among about 100 words added to the dictionary, along with "carbon footprint" and "waterboarding."

Rep. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.), a leading critic of earmarks, welcomed the development. "Appropriators have been trying to find the word 'earmark' in the Constitution for years," he said.

"At least now they'll be able to find it in the dictionary."

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richard.simon@latimes.com

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