A WORD IN THE HAND: JUNK
Ropey verb sailed through bins and underpants to clutter my flat
A column to satisfy your inner grammar nerd
For Christmas 2018 I gave my partner Marie Kondo’s book, The Life-changing Magic of Tidying, which is a much more pleasing title without a messy preposition tacked onto the end.
When my partner pointed out that I am far and away the messier person, I explained that the book was meant as a joint present. And I am pleased to report that it has already delivered on its promise. Neither of us has opened it yet but its pristine cover glares forbiddingly at us from a bedside table. Without even needing to be read, the book has guilted us into a bout of decluttering the likes of which has not been seen in SA since last year’s cabinet reshuffle.
Yes pedants, guilt can be used as a verb. Any noun can be verbified. Just this week I saw “loudhailing” in a headline, which horrified a colleague less tolerant than I am about the changing tides of language. Proper nouns, such as Marie and Kondo, are equally at risk. I know this because I was the one to accidentally verbify the compact queen of Planet Tidy.
The verbification of Marie Kondo happened during a small argument which took place while my partner and I were in the early stages of tidying. I forget what the fight was about but I do remember making my point by sweeping the contents of a shelf onto the floor and saying: “Marie Kondo that!” We both found this funny afterwards, which was good, but it added to the already intimidating amount of junk to be cleaned up, which was bad.
And that brings us to junk, which is a legitimate verb related to the chopping down of trees, although it doesn’t work as well in the context of throwing away as does trash. (“I got trashed” sounds better than “I got junked”, doesn’t it?) Nevertheless, junk is one of the most interesting members of the English word family.
Like most of the stuff that clutters our homes, junk has travelled from the dustbin to the high seas to poetry to men’s underpants and back to the dustbin again. The word junk was born of uncertain parentage in the 1400s, when it referred to throwaway bits of old rope. Some might consider this ironic, given junk’s brief flare-up as a slang word for male genitalia. (This usage received a huge boost following viral reports about the airline passenger who warned airport security personnel away from his crotch by saying: “Don’t touch my junk!”)
Between the useless rope and the unwanted grope, a junk was a famous type of sailing ship that became known even to landlubbers when TS Eliot used it in the poem Growltiger’s Last Stand, in which poor Growltiger is threatened by Siamese cats who “came creeping in their sampans and their junks”.
Junks were invented centuries ago and they still exist, because, as we all know, it is very difficult to get rid of junk entirely. In 1939 an American adventurer called Richard Halliburton was lost at sea when he tried to sail a junk from Hong Kong to San Francisco. He should have heeded Marie Kondo’s advice to get rid of the junk before you drown in it.
In recent years we have been cursed with junk food, junk mail and junk credit status, but by far the worst, if you ask me, is junk of the physical variety. Junk still creeps up on us as insidiously as those Siamese sailing cats crept up on poor old Growltiger, and if we don’t become Marie Konverts we may find ourselves similarly overcome.
My partner and I (and our cat, when we can find him under all the junk) live in a very small ground-floor flat of the type that in the US is known as a condominium, or condo for short. Our condo is overflowing with so much junk that it is more like a condomaximum, but this year I am determined that our home will become a Marie Condo. And I am not speaking junk.