Picture of a bunch of burgers. Text: Word Stories - Junk by English with Stephen

Word Stories: Junk

This is the transcript for the English with Stephen podcast episode all about the history of the word ‘junk’ and the different ways it used today.

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Hello everyone and welcome! My name’s Stephen Greene and this is English with Stephen, the podcast that gives you everything you need to learn English in under 10 minutes.

And today, I have a word story for you. For new listeners, a word story is an episode where I take a deep dive into the origin of a word or phrase and then look at how it is used today. I find with my students that this a highly effective way of thinking about what a word means.

And today’s word is ‘junk’. It is a word that is commonly used today in many different circumstances, so make sure you stay tuned to find out all about it.

After this short musical interlude.

Before we go into detail on the origin and meaning of the word ‘junk’, I’d like to recommend another podcast for English students. It is called “Simple English News Daily”, and it is absolutely fantastic. Every weekday, Monday to Friday, they produce a 7-minute episode covering world news that is clear and easy to understand. If you are interested in what is going on around the world, and you want to improve your ability to talk about the news, then this podcast is for you. You can find it on your podcast app by searching for “Simple English News Daily” or by going to the website SEND7.org. That’s SEND followed by the number 7. I will also have a link on my site EnglishwithStephen.com.

And now, over to the word ‘junk’.

Before we talk about where the word comes from, let’s talk about where the word does not come from.

Before doing my research for this episode, I assumed the word ‘junk’ was related to a type of Chinese ship, also called a junk. I quickly found out that, while the word is associated with ships, it has nothing to do with Chinese ships. Europeans only really encountered Chinese words from the 16th century, but the word ‘junk’ has existed for much longer.

A Chinese 'junk'.
A Chinese ‘junk’.

Nobody is quite sure where the original word for ‘junk’ comes from. What is certain is that it was being used in English in the 1300s. It was used on ships and describe old pieces of rope. These old bits of rope were no good for their original purpose of tying things down or connecting one thing to another, but they were not completely useless. They could be used for other jobs, like painting the side of a boat or cleaning the decks.

This idea of something that was almost useless and so very cheap, can be seen in many of the more modern meanings.

By the 19th century, a ‘junk shop’ was a shop where you could buy almost useless stuff from old ships. We can see here how it still kept the original connection with ships, but now it wasn’t just ropes, but anything from a ship that no longer served its original purpose. The word ‘junk shop’ still exists, but it has lost the connection with ships and instead means anything that is old and almost useless, from furniture to clothes.

A contemporary alternative to ‘junk shop’ is ‘charity shop’ in the UK, or ‘thrift shop’ in the USA. With a charity or thrift shop, the organisation running the business is usually raising the money for a church, charity, or other non-profit reason. A junk shop is usually a private business and, for me at least, brings with it the idea of being dark and not very welcoming.

From this idea of being almost useçess and probably cheap, it is easy to see the meaning of a phrase like ‘junk food’, which is food that is cheap and has very little nutritional value. Very tasty though. I know that pizzas and burgers are junk food, but I love them.

Junk mail is the stuff you get through your door advertising things you will never need. And if you are using email instead of traditional mail, you might just put all these useless messages in a junk folder.

If you are an unfortunate financial investor, you might have junk bonds that you thought were once going to make you rich but are now not worth the paper they are written on.

A junkyard is a place where old cars go to die. When I was a kid, if something went wrong with our car my dad would go down to the junkyard to try to find a piece from a similar, but almost destroyed car, and then replace the broken piece on our car. Junkyards still exist, of course, but with the increasing complexity of cars, it is becoming more difficult to just swap parts around.

And of course, if you have something that you think is useless you can throw it away, or just ‘junk it’, so that the noun is also a verb.

In the 1920s, there was an interesting development in the life of the word ‘junk’. In American slang, it became used to describe narcotics, especially heroin. While this usage of the word is not very common today, it gave birth to a slightly different word which we can see all over the place; ‘junkie’.

Originally, a junkie was a drug addict, someone who used heroin. The idea of addiction, of needing something in order to survive, is very important for the new meanings of the word. If you’ve ever watched the film ‘Trainspotting’ you will have heard the use of ‘junkie’ with this meaning many times.

However, it has now become much more commonly used in other contexts. A ‘sports junkie’, for example, is someone who is addicted to watching, playing, or taking part in sports. A politics junkie is someone who has to know what is going on in the world of politics. Perhaps the most common example of the word nowadays is ‘news junkie’, which is someone who loves following the news and discovering what is going on around the world.

Are you a junkie for anything? If so, leave me a message on my site EnglishwithStephen.com. On my site you will also find links to my social media, where you can let me know about what you are a junkie for as well. And don’t forget, if you are a news junkie, or if you are someone who would like to practise their listening skills every day by listening to a short summary of what is happening around the world, then go listen to the Simple English News Daily podcast on your app or on the site SEND7.org.

That’s all from me for today. I honestly hope this episode was not junk for you. I hope to speak to you all next week.

So long!

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