Where did the word ‘Punk’ Come from?
Above photo: Packed with Punks – A Damned gig at Eric’s Club, Liverpool. © David Bailey.
Recently I researched the etymology of the word “Punk”. I use it all the time but I’ve never stopped to think where it came from and how and when the Punk movement became associated with the name, or vice versa.
Whilst the modern-day use of the word ‘punk’ might suggest anarchy and youthful excess, William Shakespeare was using the term quite differently over four hundred years ago.
Although its exact etymology is not known, the term ‘punk’ has changed its meaning over the centuries. The first recorded use of the term was in the early 1600s, in William Shakespeare’s play, All’s Well That Ends Well, written in 1604-1605, when he describes a well-dressed prostitute as a “taffety punk.”
So how did this word evolve from a derogatory term aimed at a woman to a derogatory term aimed at a young man, and from that to become the name of a whole movement of music, culture, art, fashion and ideas?
That might have happened through the Scottish word ‘spunk’, meaning ‘a spark,’ first seen in a 1530s reference to burning embers and ashes. A similar use of the word can be found in a 1618 account by early inhabitants of Virginia (America) as a reference to overcooked corn:
“Some of them, more thriftye then cleanly, doe burn the coare of the eare to powder, which they call ‘pungnough,’ mingling that in their meale, but yet never tasted well in bread or broath.”
People in the Delaware region of the United States used the word ‘ponk’ around this time to reference rotten wood used as tinder.
By 1896, and perhaps fuelled by the “rotten” connotation of the term, punk had become synonymous with “something worthless” and “young criminal” — specifically in relation to male youth.
There is also a darker meaning to the word, from the American penal system, where “punk’ referred to the (often unwilling) male recipient of anal sex in prisons.
The phrase “punk rock” was originally applied to the rough guitar and vocals-based rock and roll of United States bands of the mid-1960s, such as the Sonics, the Standells and the Seeds, bands that now are more often categorized as ‘garage rock’.
The earliest known example of a rock journalist using the term “Punk” was Dave Marsh, when describing the music of a band called Question Mark and the Mysterians in the May 1971 issue of Creem magazine, and it was subsequently adopted by several influential rock music journalists in the early 1970s to describe ‘60s garage bands and more contemporary acts influenced by them.
It seems an easy step for that label to then be applied by commentators and journalists to the raw and loud Punk bands sprouting up in New York City in the mid 1970s; the Ramones, the Dead Boys, Patti Smith, Television, Richard Hell, and – simultaneously in the UK – the Sex Pistols, the Damned, the Clash and others.
If anyone has any further thoughts or insight on this I’d welcome them.
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