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A good four-letter word

NUTRITIONISTS complain about junk food, and all of us complain about junk mail. ``Junk'' is becoming an important modifier of many nouns, and maybe more need to be added. Take junk telephone calls, for instance. Those are the calls that begin, ``Am I talking to the owner of the house?'' If you are wise you will hang up for dear life; otherwise, you get a sales pitch for roofing, siding, insulation, lawn care, or furnace repair. Sometimes these junk calls want to know what brand of toothpaste you use or what brand of candidate you would vote for.

Invariably, these calls come just as you are sitting down to dinner, or when you are 100 paces away from the telephone, caring for your lawn. Occasionally they come while you are up a ladder, repairing the roof.

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Junk telephone calls aren't quite as common as junk mail -- at least not yet. But robots are being trained at this very moment to dial your telephone number at all hours of the day and night. They are programmed not to take ``No!'' for an answer. Hanging up on them in a huff does no good: You can't hurt a robot's feelings when he has a computer for a heart.

Junk telephone calls, junk mail, junk art, junk television -- and who doesn't have a junk drawer in the kitchen? Where will it all end? you ask.

But why must it end anywhere? ``Junk'' has been around as a good four-letter word since the 14th century, at least. It has been used for everything from rope to beef to drugs, not to mention scrap and trash.

It is all too easy to imagine a future in which we will find ourselves modifying almost any category of goods (or services) with this word. Parents who disapprove of their offspring's comrades will start to complain about ``junk friends.'' Linguistic purists are already justified in complaining of junk spelling and junk punctuation.

The trivial specializations of growing hordes of PhD candidates might well be considered junk scholarship. And junk learning of all kinds begins at a very early age. Sometimes it's foisted off on third-graders as ``the relevant curriculum.''

Junk cars and junk jewelry have been with us for a long time. So have junk books. Are we approaching a time when we need categories like junk politics and even junk diplomacy? Are there already junk philosophies and junk psychologies and maybe junk religions in our midst? Do we sometimes breathe junk air?

It is not hard to foresee some enterprising fellow pulling it all together for us and making a fortune publishing ``The Whole Junk Catalog: A Guide to Where the Good Junk Is.''

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Such an apotheosis is nearer than we might think. ``Junque Shoppes'' have been around for years now, in the vanguard of making us think of junk as classy, chic, and refined.

I remember a cartoon some time ago showing a bedraggled survivor crawling wearily across a desert, uttering his desperate cry: ``Junk food! Junk food!'' he gasped.

It isn't merely that we get junk, or that we want junk; some of us actually seem to crave it.

Sooner or later, we may even deserve it.

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