Not long after my posting with Junk Underjeans in it, Ben Zimmer has now nominated junk (specifically for reference to the male genitalia) as the Word of the Year in the American Dialect Society’s annual light-hearted competition. See his “On Language” column for tomorrow’s NYT Magazine, available on-line here; in it, Ben traces this use back to gay fiction writer Ethan Mordden in 1983.
Though Mordden incorporated junk into his own slang repertory, it did not enter into its current vogue as a trashy alternative to “the family jewels” until the mid-’90s.
At which point it caught on, leading eventually to “Don’t touch my junk” spreading as an anti-Transportation Security Administration slogan.
Ben goes on to note that
something about the sound and sense of the word must have made it ripe for reinvention. Tom Dalzell, whose latest book is “Damn the Man!: Slang of the Oppressed in America,” sees junk catching on euphemistically: “To diminish the shock, we call the genitals childish names or use vague and sometimes coy euphemisms — down there, unit or thing.” The Stanford linguist Arnold Zwicky concurs, adding stuff as another euphemistic model for junk. Unlike these other terms, however, junk is a harsh monosyllable evocative of four-letter taboos. Only a word encompassing the innocent and the obscene could have made the cultural impact that junk did, and for that it’s worthy of WOTY commemoration.
Ben had written me a while back, saying:
the question is why “junk” seems “right” as a term for male genitalia, semantically and/or phonetically speaking. Do you have any thoughts on the matter?
My speculative reply, which Ben has artfully boiled down into something relatively non-technical and also fit to print in the Times:
My guess is that the process involves both the narrowing of “stuff” ‘belongings’ to a euphemism for genitalia and the extension of “junk” from ‘worthless items’ to ‘stuff, belongings’. So “don’t touch my stuff” can be used (is used) to warn someone away from your genitalia, and then “junk” can be as well. “Junk” is even better than “stuff” for this purpose, since though both are monosyllables with the vowel of “fuck”, “junk” has the final k, so it sounds a bit more sexual but is still an innocent ordinary word (unlike “shit”, which has the ‘stuff, belongings’ sense, but is a taboo word).
A side issue: Ben considered the possible influence of the slang “junk in the trunk” ‘large buttocks’ on genital “junk” and discovered that the dating would make this possible:
As discussed on ADS-L recently, “junk in the trunk” is a hiphop usage attested from 1993 (“Dazzey Duks” by Duice). So that predates the post-Mordden revitalization of genital “junk” by a few years.
There was no space in the column to play with this speculation (and I can’t imagine how to work in a mention of Junk Underjeans, though they do suggest that junk might be on its way from euphemism to mild taboo word).