The Hall’mark’ of a good student

S Upendran

When I was in school some forty-odd years ago, at the end of every academic year, there was only one question on the lips of most students: “How many marks did you get in….?” This question was not posed by my classmates alone; almost everyone you knew joined in the chorus – parents, neighbours, relatives, friends, and sometimes, even the friendly kirana store owner. Since I usually scored only one or two marks more than the bare minimum required to be booted to the next class, my standard response was a cheerful, “I passed”. The so called ‘toppers’, on the other hand, would study each others’ report card carefully and try to figure out how the ‘rival’ managed to outscore him by as much as two marks in English or Physics. I was above all this; I was just happy to know that my teachers had no desire to put up with me for another year. Treating marks with sheer indifference became my hallmark.

Now forty years later, I find that nothing much has changed in the life of students. If anything, things have become worse. Many more students, and a greater number of parents, seem to be worried about marks. They are no longer content with 70s and 80s (something one could only dream about during my time); they want nothing less than ‘centum’. Scoring very high marks in all subjects is seen to be the hallmark of an intelligent student. Mark and hallmark! Is there a connection between the two? Yes, there is. The original meaning of ‘mark’ was boundary. With the passage of time, it acquired other meanings – one of them being ‘sign’ or ‘token’ – the marks that you get is a representation of how much your teacher thinks your answers are worth.

For most of us, the word ‘hallmark’ immediately brings to mind Valentine’s Day. A day when ‘love’ suddenly springs from the obituary column and becomes the flavour of the day. This is the day when a few potty people give each other flowers, a box of heart shaped candies and a card oozing with sentiments from a company that specializes in producing syrupy stuff – Hallmark. The word ‘hallmark’, however, was an integral part of the English language long before the company and its saccharine messages came into existence. The original hallmark was, in fact, an official ‘sign’ or mark put on objects made of gold and silver.

Before the 14th century, there was no way for a novice to know about the quality of gold and silver he was buying. Often, he was tricked into buying metals that were not precious at all. To ensure that people were not duped by conmen, King Edward I of England ordered that all gold and silver that went on sale receive the stamp of approval from the Goldsmiths’ Company in London. It was the job of the company to certify the quality of gold and silver. Once the precious metals had been tested and the standards met, the company put its stamp on it. This seal of approval was called ‘hallmark’ because the mark was put at ‘Goldsmiths’ Hall’. Not only did the ‘hallmark’ certify the purity of the metal, but it also informed the potential buyer when and where the object had been made. Nowadays, of course, not many users of English really associate this word with the ‘mark’ of the Goldmiths. For most, hallmark is a word that is used to refer to a typical feature of a thing or person. For example, we can say, “Kalyan treated us with an indifference that has become his hallmark” and “Religious tolerance is the hallmark of a democracy.”

As teachers, another ‘mark’ that we are all familiar with is ‘earmark’. It is not a mark that we award a student based on how beautiful his ears are! Every now and then, the Principal tells us that such and such amount has been earmarked for buying computers. When you ‘earmark’ something for a particular purpose, you have decided that it will be used for that particular purpose. For example, we can say, “The government has earmarked some funds for the anti-drug programmes” and “You cannot touch those funds. They have been earmarked for the school library.” The original earmark, as the word suggests, was actually a mark on the ear – not on the ears of human beings, but those of animals.

In the old days, a man’s wealth was determined by how many sheep and cows he owned. Since these animals looked similar, it was common practice for people to steal each others sheep and cows. To prevent this from happening, owners began to put their mark on their animals. They didn’t brand them on the side, but put their identifying mark on the ear of the animal, and this mark or ‘sign’ was used to determine ownership. Of course, this method did not always work, for some unscrupulous people merely altered the mark and claimed that the animal was theirs. Soon ‘earmark’ began to refer to any identifying mark, not just the one on the ear. With the passage of time, the word began to acquire a figurative meaning – it began to refer to money or anything else that was marked or set aside for some special purpose.

You may wonder what happened to the people who were caught tampering with the earmark of animals. They were sent to prison and they in turn were ‘earmarked’. Their ears were slit!

The author teaches at The English and Foreign Languages University, Hyderabad. He can be reached at supendran@gmail.com.