Fifty years ago, I took a semantics’ class in high school along with friend, Jeff Thimsen. Our reasoning on taking this class was that it sounded easy. That turned out not to be the case. The basic definition for semantics is:
Meaning for a word, phrase, sentence, or text.
In simplistic terms, words can have various interpretations to different people. Mrs. Hutchinson was our semantics teacher in 12th grade. Jeff and I were two of her favorite students. On the first day of class, she used the word junk as a semantics’ example. She must’ve had ten variations including this one,
“One man’s junk is another man’s treasure!”
Junk to me is the same as stuff. I like to write junk. Junk to another person might be crap or things. Crap or things is often equated to a large accumulation of junk, such as items worthless or items valuable. A dog owner might use crap in describing things deposited in their yard by Rover. Dung is another version of crap and junk. A socially offensive word for all of them also starts with s. As a child, I had to brush my teeth with soap if I was caught using that word.
I’ve never been one to curse and neither was my friend. We remembered Mrs. Hutchinson’s uncensored examples and often chuckled when we heard junk used out of context. It was left up to us to put things into perspective. Depending on our frame of mind at the time, that could sometimes be a hoot.
When the two of us were together, oftentimes our juvenile brains subconsciously inserted the wrong meaning. Close friends think alike. We’d hear someone innocently use the junk word and not be able to stop laughing. People around us suddenly looked, not understanding the inside joke.
When a pastor mentioned that he needed a group of volunteers to help clean up junk in a church member’s yard, we couldn’t hold back the tears. This woman had dogs, yet preacher wasn’t referring to people cleaning up after them.
Having the same mindset, Jeff and I pictured our congregation walking around with shovels and bags while holding noses. We laughed until it hurt. Even if he’d meant dung, it’s hard to fathom exactly what word pastor would’ve used to describe such.
Awful, terrible, and bad are great examples of semantics where vehicles are concerned. Telling someone that a car is awful or terrible means the automobile is crap to my pals. Pile and heap have the same meaning. Saying that it’s bad is just the opposite. Whenever hot rods are built, we always strive for bad. That’s the epitome of getting things right.
Semantics seem to be more at play these days automotively speaking than ever before. Whereas sick used to mean physically or mentally ill, it can now be used to describe something bad, like a blown Hemi ’32 Ford coupe. For English scholars, automotively is my own creation and not a typo.
Going back to junk. There’s another misused definition of this word that I purposely left out. Most mechanics use it to describe a car or truck that can barely move up the road. This four-letter word actually comes from the word turtle. Turd is much more representative of a pokey car or truck than turt. I believe Mrs. Hutchinson would concur!