Election etymology.

As I was reading two old classics on American agriculture — Percy Wells Bidwell & John I. Falconer’s History of Agriculture in the Northern United States, 1620-1860 (1925) and L.C. Gray’s two-volume History of Agriculture in the Southern United States to 1860 (1933), both published as a part of the Carnegie Institute of Washington’s economic history series — I stumbled across a word we’ve heard a lot lately: “earmark.” This was not in a chapter about legislative battles. Curious? This is what the OED has to say:

1. A mark in the ear of a sheep or other animal, serving as a sign of ownership.
2. transf. and fig. A ‘stamp’, mark of ownership, identifying mark.
3. The mark of teeth in the ear.

As in one might brand or earmark one’s livestock when setting them out in the common pasture. Most colonial New England towns had laws on the books requiring that animals be thusly marked. As the origin and definition suggest, earmarks are about property: claiming something as one’s own, so that it doesn’t get lost in the shuffle.
The thing that surprised me about this discovery — which, now that I think about it, makes absolutely perfect sense and should hardly be at all surprising — is that when I would hear the term “earmarks” before, I would think of dogears to mark pages in a book. I was thinking about it in terms of setting aside something for yourself, like a reminder that this was the part that you really liked. While both images are certainly about marking, the metaphors are totally different: one is about signaling something to oneself (remember this part, it’s important!) while the other is about sending a message to others (this is mine).
Another thing that came up in my reading was the term “commoner,” which we think of as referring to regular folks. However, under the New England town/village system of community settlement, did not refer to the average Joes (or Josiahs) but rather the town proprietors, the ones responsible for land allocation, commons management, and local law — i.e. the most important, prominent, and powerful members of the community. The term derives from the fact that not everyone generally had access to the commons (be they meadow or pasture). Often, there were distinct town commons and proprietor’s commons, the former accessible to all community members, the latter only to the proprietors. This, of course, reminds us that, contrary to Garrett Hardin’s classic(ally erroneous) formulation, a commons is not a free-for-all, but a carefully communally regulated piece of property.
(Incidentally, if you happen to be at all interested in reading a much more recent [than the tomes mentioned above] and thoroughly fascinating account of colonial New England village life, agriculture, and land tenure, go out and find yourself a copy of Brian Donahue’s The Great Meadow.)
I thought, perhaps, that our idea about commoners being something more akin to peasants than to proprietors might be explained by the term not being an American one, and perhaps having older origins before enclosure. But look at the OED entry, right up there at the top:

1. a. A member of the community having civic rights; a burgess, citizen; spec. a member of the general body of a town-council. Obs.

We see the more common (heh) or contemporary usage below:

2. a. More generally: One of the common people; a member of the commonalty. (Now applied to all below the rank of a peer.)

I think these give some good insight into what we’re really getting at here:

4. One who shares or takes part in anything; a sharer, participator.
. . .
7. a. One who has a joint right in common lands; one who enjoys a right of common.

It’s nice to be reminded of the community responsibilities that inhere in the designation of “commoner.” (Perhaps that’s why I find states that are actually commonwealths so appealing in name.)
At any rate, I have to get back to the reading (only a week till I get my questions!), but I wanted to share my discoveries. When you think about it, there are a ton of agricultural terms in American political discourse: “pork” and “pork-barrel” come immediately to mind. These should hold you over for now. I am sure you are all waiting with bated breath for the next installment of what JCB loves to refer to as “the history of the scythe.” Thank you and good night.


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