From the genital junkyard

Yesterday in my posting “Manscaping your junk”:

A tv spot ad (only 15 seconds long) for the Gillette Intimate Manscape Kit (Gillette Intimate Pubic Hair Trimmer, Gillette Intimate Pubic Hair Razor, Gillette Intimate Pubic Shave Cream + Cleanser), released at least twice, under different titles:

— ‘It’s Not Junk, so Treat It Right’  [apparently it’s your “pubic region” instead], published 10/31/22

— “Respect Your Junk!”, published 3/11/23

Two matters of linguistic interest here: the noun manscaping and verb manscape; and the noun junk ‘male genitals’. The material I’ve collected on these is extensive enough that I’m not going to try to cram it all into one posting, but will split things in two, in follow-up postings on the noun junk and on the noun manscaping / the verb manscape.

The spot ads play with the claim that referring to your genitals as junk is an insult to them, as if the (mildly) negative content of disposable junk unavoidably carries over to genital junk, contaminating it — an idea I disputed in yesterday’s posting. Beyond that, calling genital junk an insult seriously overestimates the power of its negative affect: far from being an insult, like, say, garbage and shit, it’s just a minimizer, treating the genitals as of little worth, what I referred to as a devaluation in my 9/1 posting “A bulletin from Pejora, the land of derogation and insult”:

The [insulting] slur jerk  [what we might call “assholish jerk“] developed from jerk referring to a fool or incompetent [“foolish jerk“] — what I’ll call a (mere) devaluation, meaning a term that refers to [someone or something] regarded as of little worth.

Now on the lexicography of the noun(s) junk.

The NOAD overview of 8 nouns junk, whether relevant to this posting or not (in two separate entries, because these have different etymologies):

noun junk-1:  1 [a] informal old or discarded articles that are considered useless or of little value: the cellars are full of junk | [as modifier]:  we need to clear out our junk room. [b] worthless writing, talk, or ideas: I can’t write this kind of junk. [c] a person’s belongings, equipment, or baggage: I only have an hour to get all my junk together. [d] Finance junk bonds: he invested in junk. 2 informal heroin: you do anything for junk — cheat, lie, steal. 3 the lump of oily fibrous tissue in a sperm whale’s head, containing spermaceti. 4 US vulgar slang a man’s genitals. ORIGIN late Middle English (denoting an old or inferior rope): of unknown origin.

noun junk-2: a flat-bottomed sailing vessel typical in China and the East Indies, with a prominent stem, a high stern, and lugsails. ORIGIN mid 16th century: [ultimately] … from Malay jong

An OED entry (revised 2019) traces the development of the senses of junk-1; the relevant senses:

— 5.a. Old or discarded items or materials that may be reused or recycled, such as used clothing, bottles, scrap metal, worn-out machinery, etc.; (sometimes simply) waste, refuse, rubbish. [1st cite 1836]

— 5.b. colloquial. Any objects, possessions, etc., which are considered to be of little or no use or value, or which make a place cluttered. Also in neutral sense: (with possessive) personal belongings. [1st cite 1907]

— 7. Originally and chiefly U.S. Worthless or absurd ideas, talk, writing, etc.; nonsense. Cf. rubbish [1st cite 1906]

— 10. Originally U.S. Food that appeals to popular taste but has little nutritional value, typically having a high sugar and fat content, and often sold pre-prepared for convenience; = junk food [1st cite 1948]

— 11. slang (originally and chiefly U.S.). The male genitals. [1st cite 1983; the first two cites are in gay male contexts, while the third cite, from Gin Price’s 2015 novel On Edge, is not]

Digression on the spread of genital junk. See the OED‘s entry 11. I was intrigued by the first cites in gay male contexts, combined with my very heavy use of genital junk in my own writing, where it’s been my preferred term for the male genitals — not technical terminology nor coy, childish euphemism nor obscure avoidance nor crude epithet, but easily understood. A good choice from the available package vocabulary — on which, see my 6/14/11 posting “Package vocabulary”; from this posting and some later ones, this list of vocabulary for reference to a man’s genitals / genitalia:

dealpackagejunkunitstufffamily jewelstendersequipment, goods, pouch, basket, sack, box, crotch

plus personified references to testicles, which can be extended to cover the penis as well: boys, guys. From the 2011 posting:

All of this package vocabulary can be used with the definite article the (with the possessor of the package to be determined from context or understood to be men in general) or with an explicit possessive determiner: the goodshis goods.

The question is whether the spread of genital junk throughout many social contexts in the US — it’s now very widely used — started with gay men like me; and, then, wherever it started, how it spread socially. I don’t have the resources to look at questions like these, so the best I can do is to collect anecdotes and offer speculations. As in this old posting:

My “Genital junk” posting. It’s from 1/1/11, long enough ago that it’s worth reproducing in full:

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 thereunit 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).


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