Well, I found an interesting possibility thanks to the brief window of opportunity offered by the Oxford English Dictionary website, which is letting anyone access the OED online for free (a heckuva lot less than the $295 annual subscription rate!) until February 5. (Just sign in using “trynewoed” as both user name and password. Hat tip to Jan Freeman.)
Did you know that one definition of “junk” – one of the American Dialect Society’s nominees for most useful word of 2010 – is “the lump or mass of thick oily cellular tissue beneath the case and nostrils of a sperm-whale, containing spermaceti”? Or as Henry T. Cheever wrote in his 1850 novel “The Whale and His Captors” (a possible template for “Moby Dick”): “What whalers call the junk, or mighty mass of blubber, separated from the case.”
Spermaceti, it turns out, has nothing to do with sperm, though it got its name because at one point people believed it was indeed the coagulated semen of the whale. According to the Encyclopedia Britannica, it’s actually a wax obtained from the head of a sperm whale or bottlenose whale that has been used in ointments, cosmetic creams, wax candles and industrial lubricants.
So does all that really have anything to do with the slang meaning of “junk” as used today? I couldn’t say for sure, but at least the spermaceti theory gives me something to ponder the next time I’m waiting in line at the airport.
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