Wood on Words: Junk may not be junk
The basic idea behind recycling is that one person’s junk is another person’s treasure.
Much of what is labeled junk started out as something of greater value, and sometimes it’s just a matter of perspective.
The word “junk” has undergone a similar transformation. Not the junk that’s a type of Chinese or Japanese ship with a distinctive shape and unusual sails. That one always referred to the sailing vessel as it evolved from Malay to Javanese to Portuguese to French.
The other “junk” is of unknown origin. Its initial meaning, now considered obsolete, was “old cable or rope used for making oakum, mats, etc.” So it started out as something valued as a recycling resource.
Later it became “old metal, glass, paper, rags, etc., parts of which may be salvageable for reuse.” This spawned terms such as “junkman,” a dealer in such items, and “junkyard,” a place where such stuff “is kept, sorted and sold.”
The latter is also the final resting place for “junk cars,” also known by the slang “junkers.”
Also reflecting low or questionable value are “junk jewelry,” informal for the cheap costume type; “junk food,” which is “any of various snack foods processed as with chemical additives and of low nutritional value”; “junk bond,” informal for a type of investment that’s highly speculative and could pay off big — or not; and “junk mail,” which since the 1950s has been used to refer to “advertisements, solicitations, etc., mailed in large quantities, usually by third-class mail.”
Eventually, “junk” also became an informal term for “useless or worthless stuff; trash; rubbish.”
Used informally as a verb, “junk” means “to throw away as worthless or get rid of by selling as junk; discard; scrap.”
It also has two “slang” uses. One is for “a narcotic drug, especially heroin.” Such drugs are particularly addictive, and people who are hooked on them are called “junkies.”
We also use the slang “junkie” (also spelled “junky”) for a person so caught up in an activity or interest as to seem to be addicted to it. In this case, you could even have a “junk food junkie.”
Of course, actually being a junkie is no laughing matter.
In baseball, “junk” refers to “low-velocity pitches, especially slow curveballs.” Again, this is a matter of perspective. For the pitcher, it’s the source of his livelihood. It’s more likely to be considered junk by batters who can’t hit it.
Speaking of perspective on pitches, I have a new one on that darling of the junk mail purveyors, the “free gift.”
This term makes everyone’s list of unsavory redundancies, but lately I’ve developed a certain fondness for it. In the spirit of the “double negative,” I like to think of “free gift” as a “double positive.”
The classic Rolling Stones lyric “I can’t get no satisfaction” is an example of a double negative. Logically, the “can’t” and the “no” cancel each other out, suggesting the singer actually could get satisfaction. And he probably did — it was a huge hit.
Most of the time, “free” and “gift” are positive things. But when bundled in a direct marketing offer, there are usually strings attached: You may have to do something to receive or keep the “gift,” and it may end up costing you, which isn’t “free.”
The “double positive” becomes a negative.
Now when the mail brings me an offer of a “free gift,” I look at it as an inside joke, delivered with a wink. I smile, and the pitch gets pitched.
Barry Wood is a copy editor at the Rockford Register Star. Contact him at email@example.com.