any identifying or distinguishing mark or characteristic: The mayor's statement had all the earmarks of dirty politics.
a mark of identification made on the ear of an animal to show ownership.
a provision in a piece of Congressional legislation that directs specified federal funds to specific projects, programs, organizations, or individuals: Lawmakers requested almost 40,000 earmarks worth more than $100 billion directed to their home districts and states.Compare pork barrel.

verb (used with object)

to set aside for a specific purpose, use, recipient, etc.: to earmark goods for export.
to mark with an earmark.

Origin of earmark

First recorded in 1515–25; ear1 + mark1
Related formsun·ear·marked, adjective
Dictionary.com Unabridged Based on the Random House Unabridged Dictionary, © Random House, Inc. 2019

Examples from the Web for earmark

Contemporary Examples of earmark

  • If those things can be done, I'd happily reward every member of Congress with an earmark of his or her very own.

    The Daily Beast logo
    Why I Am Not A Deficit Hawk

    David Frum

    April 18, 2012

  • If earmark reform was something that the public understood well enough to hunger for, John McCain would be our president.

    The Daily Beast logo
    Obama's Most Blatant Hypocrisy

    Nicolle Wallace

    March 12, 2009

Historical Examples of earmark

  • These minor obligations do not earmark more than an hour in the day.

  • It wont do, she averred, but Mr. Denby has every earmark of it.

    Under Cover

    Roi Cooper Megrue

  • Then follows the non sequitur, which is a Democratic earmark.

  • So I earmark the calf with the owner's marks, and don't brand him at all.

    When A Man's A Man

    Harold Bell Wright

  • I never saw a more typical criminal, Michael said, severely looking at the captive; every earmark of it.

    Under Cover

    Roi Cooper Megrue

British Dictionary definitions for earmark


verb (tr)

to set aside or mark out for a specific purpose
to make an identification mark on the ear of (a domestic animal)


a mark of identification on the ear of a domestic animal
any distinguishing mark or characteristic
Collins English Dictionary - Complete & Unabridged 2012 Digital Edition © William Collins Sons & Co. Ltd. 1979, 1986 © HarperCollins Publishers 1998, 2000, 2003, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2009, 2012

Word Origin and History for earmark

late 15c., from ear (n.1) + mark (n.1). Originally a cut or mark in the ear of sheep and cattle, serving as a sign of ownership (also a punishment of certain criminals); first recorded 1570s in figurative sense "stamp of ownership."


1590s, "to identify by an earmark," from earmark (n.). Meaning "to set aside money for a special purpose" is attested by 1868. Related: Earmarked; earmarking.

Online Etymology Dictionary, © 2010 Douglas Harper