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Not Just Desserts: How "Junket" Became a Bad Word

The good times were back on Wall Street, the news report said. Executives of an banking firm were staying at "some luxury digs in New Dehli." But, the report added, "This is not a pure junket, to be sure." The executives would also be conducting some business.

A columnist at another publication railed about local legislators' decisions: "Let's see, this is the same legislature that fiercely resisted any limits on how much lucre it could amass, or how many ‘fact-finding' and ‘educational' junkets it could accept from contributors and lobbyists."

The press, meanwhile, often take "junkets" for movie or television premieres.

All three of those uses hint that a "junket" is something extravagant, perhaps slightly unethical, or, at the least, a freebie. But many of us remember "junket" as a bland custard-like dessert popular in the fifties and sixties. Those two uses of "junket" actually have a common ancestry: both were born in a basket.

In the Bible, Moses was placed in a basket made of rushes, grasslike plants that grow near water. According to The Oxford English Dictionary, a 1382 version of the Bible calls that basket an "ionket." The Latin genus for rushes is Juncus. Put them together in the Babel of language and you come up with "junket," the name for a basket made of rushes or reeds, often used for fish.

Someone figured out that if curdled or churned milk or cream were poured into a "junket," the excess liquid would drain through the rushes, leaving behind something that could become soft cheese or another delicate dairy dish. (The enzyme that curdled the milk was from unweaned calves and is called "rennet." This will be important later. )

It was easier to serve these easily disturbed products in the "junket" rather than risk breaking them apart by transferring them to another vessel, and soon the dairy products themselves were known as "junket."

"Junket" was a delicacy, served at banquets or other celebrations, and—voilà—by the early fifteen hundreds, according to The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (fourth edition), a "junket" was the special occasion where "junket" was served, perhaps still in a "junket."

In nineteenth century United States, a "junket" was a picnic, or any outing with lots of eating and drinking. In 1874, the line of "Junket" desserts was introduced in the U.S., with "Junket rennet custard" being billed as an aid to digestion because of that enzyme. Today, "junket" is still a dessert—think clotted cream—and though Junket brand desserts are still made, they are hard to find.

But by 1886, the OED says, the Detroit Free Press wrote that "The term ‘junket' in America is generally applied to a trip taken by an American official at the expense of the government." The rich life akin to custard-eating had taken on negative connotations.

In British English, a "junket" is usually associated with gambling rather than with freebie trips, but in the U.S., it has shady associations. At the least, it's not something any self-respecting journalist should be on board with.

Maybe we should start calling those press trips "rennets" instead. It might make them easier to digest.

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Merrill Perlman is adjunct assistant professor at the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism and president of Merrill Perlman Consulting, offering consulting and freelance editing services and training in journalism, grammar and usage. Among her clients are The New York Times, ProPublica and the Poynter Institute. She writes the "Language Corner" column and blog for Columbia Journalism Review. Merrill retired in June 2008 after 25 years at The New York Times, most recently as director of copy desks with responsibility for managing 150 copy editors. Click here to read more articles by Merrill Perlman.

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