Earmarks

I was at the Historical Society one day benefiting from the company of Helen Ionta, 90, the Town Historian, who was keeping vigil for a reporter from Syracuse who said he’d drop by. She was filling the time by reading from a leather bound journal, entitled “Strays,” written in pen & ink in 1835. It soon became clear that the author was the man whose job it was to apprehend wandering animals in the yards and gardens of local Village residents and return the bold explorers to their rightful owners.

“Pigs!” she laughed at one point, “Gosh, everything got loose.” Everything indeed, although horses seemed to lead the list, with a black mare who was a repeat offender.

And then Helen began reading aloud from a short list on the inside of the book’s front cover. First a name and then, “Three notches on the right ear, and a swallowtail on the left.” Another name and “A crop off both ears.”

The light went on for both of us. Earmarks. Rather than branding everything, the owners used a knife to mark their animals’ ears for easy identification. And the man in charge of strays had the master list of ear-marks in his journal, so he could return the animals quickly and easily. Today it would be a computer chip; in 1835, it was an earmark.

Of course I’ve been using the word for years, but how much nicer to know where it came from.

— August 5, 2000

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