Final Word

Rage on the road to junk


South Arica seems to be unstoppably on the road to a junk credit rating amid allegations about state capture and due to a stuttering economy, while rage is building in communities on that road.

In fact, some economic experts hold that if you look at what has been happening to the value of the rand and government bonds over the last couple of months, markets have not been waiting for ratings agencies to make this status formal – they have already effectively assigned ‘junk’ status to the country.

And, as this has been happening and impacting negatively on their quality of live, a kind of social ‘road range’ has been building among a large chunk of the South African society – much of it directed at President Jacob Zuma, his friends, associates and the ANC he leads.

The road of junk

But where does the term ‘junk’ come from and what does it mean?

For a term of uncertain origin, and for most of its existence meaning “old useless and discarded material”, junk has proved itself a versatile and useful term in the English language.

The term has proved to be especially popular in American English and in 2004 the American lexicographer Grant Barrett attempted to define ‘junk’ in The Double-Tongued Dictionary for words “from the fringes of English”. Barrett in particular had a look at how it happened that ‘junk’ became an American slang term for male genitals. In general terms he came to the conclusion that the origins of ‘junk’ are murky, and that it’s “easy to speculate but impossible to prove any number of theories”.

From other sources we know that the term ‘junk’ has been around as a term describing cheap, worthless, unwanted or trashy stuff since at least 1480 as ‘jonke’ and referred to ‘old cable or rope’, cut in bits and used for caulking, plugging leaks of holes in maritime context and might have come from the Old French word junc for reed and figuratively as a type of something of little value, from Latin iuncus for ‘rush, reed’.

Then, from the New York Times, we learn that in 2010 ‘junk’, with ‘vuvuzela’ from South Africa, was the “word of the year of the American Dialect Society, concerned with that country’s diverse linguistic forms.

The vuvuzela was introduced to American society through coverage of the Soccer World Cup of that year. ‘Junk’, as a term for male genitals became a contender thanks to a young software engineer named John Tyner. He single-handedly took on the Transportation Security Administration’s new security procedures. Going through the T.S.A. screening at San Diego International Airport, Tyner opted out of the full-body scan, necessitating a pat-down, which he felt was a little too intimate. With his mobile phone capturing the encounter, Tyner warned the screener: “If you touch my junk, I’m gonna have you arrested.”

Credit junk arrived

But 2010 was also the year in which the term ‘junk rose to prominence in the context of global financial markets.

It was the year that Greece’s credit rating was lowered to junk status, sending global stock markets tumbling – the junk-bond business enjoyed a boom not seen since the 1980s heyday and triggered a global economic downturn, also impacting on South Africa

Maybe there was an element of bad luck for Mr Zuma in that it came at a time when he was taking over the leadership of the ANC.

The prominence and versatility of ‘junk’ was also enhanced at the time by a feckless work crew in the Gulf of Mexico, trying to plug BP’s underwater oil gusher with a junk shot, pumping pieces of rope, shredded tires and golf balls along with mud and debris into the blowout preventer – without success.

And the term ‘junk food’ gained traction with the Obama administration in the US declaring a war on childhood obesity, passing legislation to keep ‘junk food’ out of public schools. Scientists also found clues for the origins of diseases like muscular dystrophy and breast cancer in the genetic detritus known as junk DNA.

Road rage on way to junk status

Some global bad luck or not, it was some other elements of the Zuma administration, like Nenegate, Nkandlagate and Guptagate that got South Africans in a rage on the road to junk status.

The term ‘rage’, in dictionaries as described as ‘madness, insanity; fit of frenzy; anger, wrath; fierceness in battle; violence of storm, fire, etc.’, dates back to the 13th century. It comes from the Old French word raige for ‘madness, insanity; fit of frenzy; anger, wrath; fierceness in battle; violence of storm, fire, etc.’, which in turn comes from Latin’s rabies for ‘madness, rage, fury’, and is related to the earlier rabere  for ‘be mad, rave’. It also gave us ‘rabies’, as in bitten by a mad dog.

The term ‘road rage’ appears to have been coined in the USA in the 1980s. Several citations of it exist from that time and place, this, for example, from the St. Petersburg  Times, 2nd April 1988: “A fit of ‘road rage’ has landed a man in jail, accused of shooting a woman passenger who’s [sic] car had ‘cut him off’ on the highway.”

‘Road rage’ is now used worldwide, both as a name and as a behaviour. The name at least is popular enough to have spawned imitators – following (note Mr Zuma) the pattern post- the Watergate scandal under the Nixon administration in the US, where every scandal is now xxx-gate.

by Piet Coetzer

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