Santa Monica is many things to many people but “farm” is not one of them. We are not alone. Less than two percent of Americans earn farm income. Why, then, are media accounts of our current economic legislation so heavily laden with “agri-speak?” It was Barack Obama who moved into the White House, not Farmer John. How are we city-folk supposed to weave through the barn jargon?Take an article from last Thursday’s USA Today: “Obama Vows to Cut Pork, Later.” Taken literally, the headline suggests that the President’s next career will be carving spare ribs in some Chicago meatpacking plant. The USA Today article not only mentions “pork,” but goes on to mention “pork barrel” (what the hell is a pork barrel?), “earmarks” (11 times), “pet projects” (twice) and even the four-legged word, “watchdogs.” “Watchdog” is easy. I have one, furry and cute and poorly trained. I guess he is my “pet project?”What about “earmarks?” Could it be a sports metaphor? Is the media paralleling the current political mayhem to the bizarre 1997 fight when heavyweight Mike Tyson bit off a portion of Evander Holyfield’s ear? Wrong. The term “earmark” applies to the centuries old practice of farmers tagging the ears of their animals to claim ownership among the herd. It is kind of like branding but without the smell of burning hair. The bill Obama signed last week had a “herd” of 8,400 “earmark” appropriations as our duly elected representatives gorged themselves at the federal feeding trough.Which brings us to “pork.” According to my informal research, Capitol Hill’s “pork” idiom does NOT refer to the stereotypical gluttony of pigs (e.g. “pigging out”) although perhaps it should. Rather, the historical context for legislative “pork” goes back to an earlier, far less affluent time when meat of any kind was rare in the American diet. Back then, pork was the most common meat so over-consumption of pork became synonymous with luxury, largesse, indulgence, even waste. Pork seems a badly dated metaphor given our current eating habits. Today, pork is cheap, and certainly not the meat of highest demand. (You can’t even buy a pork sandwich at McDonalds except during “McRib” promotional specials.) If the political media’s “meat-a-phors” for gold-plated self-serving legislation must persist, a better new millennium flesh would be filet mignon, or lobster: “Obama Vetoes Bill Laden with Lobster!”Getting back to the issue of swine-speak, in the era before refrigeration, families used to buy barrels of salt pork, a meat source that would last for months. Accordingly, a barrel of pork (as in “pork barrel”) implies a prodigious quantity. Prior to today’s 40 foot cargo containers, the barrel was the largest standard shipping unit (it’s still the measure of crude oil) and a barrel of anything was a lot of anything — like a “barrel full of monkeys” or the famous polka lyrics: “Roll out the barrel [of beer] and we’ll have a barrel of fun.”Hopefully, the above lexicon knowledge may help empower all of us as we collectively weave our way through unprecedented financial calamity and its overly idiomatic media coverage. “Knowledge,” after all, “is power” according to England’s literary giant, the 17th Century’s Sir Francis Bacon.
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