pork, pork barrel

If you watch the Sunday morning political talk shows or 24-hour cable TV news, you will inevitably hear talk of pork, government funds dispensed by politicians to win favor from their constituents. But why pork? Where does the term come from?

The literal meaning of the word, the flesh of a pig, comes into English by the beginning of the fourteenth century from the Anglo-Norman porc. Ultimately it comes from the Latin porcus, or “pig.”

The political sense of pork, however, is American in origin, appearing in the 1870s. It is a shortening of pork barrel and is a reference to such barrels being a communal source for the staple food. It may even be a reference to the pre-Civil War practice of plantation owners distributing salt pork in barrels to their slaves.

David W. Mitchell, an Englishman who traveled the United States and in 1862 wrote a book Ten Years in the United States about his experiences, quotes a Maryland newspaper editor who explains why he has declined to run for public office:

To put myself in a position in which every wretch entitled to a vote would feel himself privileged to hold me under special obligations, would be giving rather too much pork for a shilling.

This is the first known use of pork in a political context, although Mitchell labels the phrase too much pork for a shilling “a common expression” and the word is used with the literal sense of “meat” within an established catchphrase.

The first known unambiguous use of political pork is from the September 13, 1873 Defiance Democrat, an Ohio newspaper, in an article titled “The Fuss Over the Pork.” But this use is quite different from the current sense in that it refers to furor over lawmakers raising their own salaries:

Recollecting their many previous visits to the public pork-barrel, the much bigger loads lugged away on those occasions […] this hue-and-cry over the salary grab puzzles quite as much as it alarms them.

But within a few years, the familiar sense of pork was not only in use, but openly talked about in the halls of Congress. The Congressional Record of February 28, 1879 contains the following:

St. Louis is going to have some of the “pork” indirectly; but it will not do any good.

So political pork is just an example of legislators bringing home the bacon to their constituents.


Sources:

Barrett, Grant, “pork barrel, n.,” Hatchet Jobs and Hardball: The Oxford Dictionary of American Political Slang, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004, 207–08.

“pork, n.1,” “pork barrel, n.,” Oxford English Dictionary, third edition, December 2006.

Safire William, “pork barrel,” Safire’s Political Dictionary, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008, 561.

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