How 'Mavericks,' 'Earmarks' Made Their Way From Cows and Pigs Into Politics
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AA: I'm Avi Arditti with Rosanne Skirble, and this week on WORDMASTER: we continue our discussion with dictionary editor Ben Zimmer about terms related to the presidential campaign.
RS: "One word that's being associated with John McCain -- or John McCain wants to have associated with him -- is the term 'maverick.'"
BEN ZIMMER: "It was originally the name of a cattle rancher in Texas whose name was Samuel Maverick, in the mid-nineteenth century. He was also a politician, but he owned a large herd of cattle in Texas. And he was notorious because he never branded his cattle, as was usually done by the cattle ranchers. And he said that this was as a way of being less cruel to the animals. But his rivals, the other cattle ranchers in Texas, thought that this was just a ploy so that he could claim that any cattle that didn't have a brand were his, and that he could just claim them that way.
"In any case, this term maverick then was applied to the cattle themselves. 'Mavericks' were unbranded calves. And then, from there, it got extended to mean just someone who kind of runs wild, somebody who's very independent-minded, has a free spirit."
RS: "Speaking of cruelty to animals, can you put lipstick on a pig?"
BEN ZIMMER: "I wouldn't want to try, but -- "
RS: "Explain that to me."
BEN ZIMMER: " -- we've certainly heard a lot about lipstick on a pig. Barack Obama told a crowd, 'You can put lipstick on a pig but it's still a pig.' And then, very swiftly, the McCain campaign said that this was somehow directed at Sarah Palin. But we can see that this has a very interesting history, too.
"It's been used by lots of different people. In fact, John McCain himself used it just last year to describe Hillary Clinton's health care plan. And that's actually an old concept of taking a pig and trying to convert it into something pretty. There's even a biblical proverb, there's an echo from the Bible: 'As a ring of gold in a swine's snout, so is a beautiful woman who lacks discretion.'
"But then it became a common source of expressions in the English language to refer to a pig that's somehow dressed up. So there are expressions like 'A hog in a silk waistcoat is still a hog.' And in the twentieth century then we get variations on that which involve other types of prettying up, including lipstick, or putting perfume on a pig. There's lots of different ways that people have talked about trying to convert something from ugly to pretty, or from useless to useful."
AA: "A sow's ear into a silk purse."
BEN ZIMMER: "Exactly. That's an expression that dates back to the mid-sixteenth century: 'You can't make a silk purse from a sow's ear.' So the idea is the ear of a sow, or a female hog, is something that is not very pretty at all and not very useful.
"Earmark is another pig-related term which originally referred to the marks on a pig's ear and eventually got used in politics to refer to this special set-aside money that's used for different projects, and that a congressman can try to bring these special appropriations back to their home state or home district."
RS: "Bring home the bacon, as it were."
BEN ZIMMER: "Bring home the bacon. And bring home the pork, to use yet another pig expression."
TERESA ROOF: "Well, pork products today are actually a lot leaner than in the past."
AA: Teresa Roof must wince at the irony anytime someone refers in politics to budgetary fat as pork. She is public relations manager for the National Pork Board, an industry group where an "earmark" can still refer to an identifying tag on a pig.
TERESA ROOF: "Compare the pigs from nineteen fifties. Today's model has slimmed down considerably with seventy-three percent less fat. And that's mainly due to the demand that consumers want a leaner product."
AA: "Isn't the argument that some people have now that pork is almost too lean, that it's lost some of its flavor because they've cut some of the fat out?"
TERESA ROOF: "There's various different breeds and various different models out there today to satisfy every consumer's need. There's an active niche market out there [for] people who are looking for a specific breed of pork, or pork to meet those demands, so there's basically everything out there on the market, for a wide variety of consumers."
AA: That was Teresa Roof at the National Pork Board. And before that we heard from Ben Zimmer, executive producer of the Visual Thesaurus, an online thesaurus and dictionary. Part one of our discussion of terms related to the presidential campaign can be found at our Web site, voanews.com/wordmaster. You can also learn more about two other terms in the news right now: "bailout" and "golden parachute."
And that's all for WORDMASTER this week. With Rosanne Skirble, I'm Avi Arditti.