You Say Tomato, I Say Junk

By John Kelly
Monday, April 24, 2006

George Orwell would have loved the letter I received recently from Azeezaly S. Jaffer , the U.S. Postal Service's vice president of public affairs and communications.

Azeezaly read my recent column about how tough it's been to stop the junk mail that keeps coming to my house for my late mother-in-law.

Azeezaly wrote: "I had an agreement with your predecessor and that was that I wouldn't call what falls out of the center section of my Sunday Post 'junk newspaper' if he would refer to what he found in his mailbox as advertising mail. Can you and I agree, too?"

Oh, let's agree to disagree, shall we?

I could make an argument here about the difference between advertising that appears in my newspaper and advertising that appears in my mailbox, but I'll let a reader named Tim Oster do it for me: "Funny, I remember buying the paper," Tim said. "I don't remember asking anyone to send me the junk mail."

Tim e-mailed me after seeing Azeezaly's letter to me displayed on the Postal Service Web site, in a section called "Setting the Record Straight." That's the place where the USPS "challenges inaccurate, misleading or false information in print and on television."

I had an agreement with myself that I wouldn't reply to Azeezaly in my column without first replying to him in person, but because he saw fit to take the first public potshot, I broke that agreement.

First of all, I would never presume to tell Azeezaly what he should call things, even the fliers inside The Post. I call them "inserts," but if he thinks of them as the Devil's spawn, then it's perfectly within his constitutionally protected rights to call them that. Junk newspaper, glossy gloop, evil entrails, whatever. Why, he can even call The Washington Post a "rag" and I won't take it personally. Sticks and stones may break my bones, etc.

He obviously doesn't feel the same way about jun . . . about the unwanted mail I receive. But now I feel compelled to defend my use of the J-word.

What it comes down to is this: I'm a busy man. I can't afford the three extra syllables it takes to say "advertising mail" instead of "junk mail." Plus, I'm concerned about retraining My Lovely Wife. She still says "Cabin John Bridge." Can you imagine what it would take to get her up to speed on accepted direct-mail nomenclature?

I envision a scene all too much like this one:

My Lovely Wife: Anything good in the mail?

Me: Nah. Just bills and advertising mail.

MLW: What?

Me: Advertising mail. You know, solicitations from the National Wombat Federation and the Society to Prevent Childhood Alzheimer's. And a catalogue from Tiny Toes: Your Discount Source for Extremely Small Shoes. Plus 37 fliers from real estate agents hoping to sell our house.

MLW: Oh, you mean junk mail.

Me: Bite your tongue! This is advertising mail. And from now on that's what we're going to call it.

MLW: Whatever. Say, are you going to the dump later today?

Me: Sweetheart, you can't call it the "dump." That's rude. It's an ugly word that belittles the contributions of the waste management personnel who so ably serve us.

MLW: You mean the trashmen?

Me: Shhhhh. I never want to hear you utter that word again. They are "waste management personnel." Or, if you must, "refuse collectors." And, please, the dump is now the "transfer station."

MLW: Oh that's right. I forgot. Frankly, it's all too much! I can't take the strain! [Breaks down, sobbing.]

Me: There, there, my petit chou .

[All exeunt.]

Letter Perfect

A few years back they wanted us to refer to junk mail as "third-class mail." I guess even that sounded too derogatory, as if these envelopes contained the epistolary equivalents of third-class citizens. Maybe that's why the Postal Service is attempting to enter into secret agreements with newspaper columnists to start calling it "advertising mail."

Frankly, why stop there? I think "bonus mail" has a nice ring to it. It's like a little treat in your mailbox.

War is peace. Ignorance is strength. Junk mail is bonus mail.

I know that Azeezaly won't have read this far in today's column. He'll have rushed to his typewriter around the third mention of the word "junk." That's too bad, because what he should know is this: I love the men and women of the U.S. Postal Service. I appreciate the difficulty of their task. When I get fed up with junk mail, it's the direct marketers I'm mad at, not the letter carriers.

In other words, I don't blame the messenger.

My address: 1150 15th St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20071. My

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company