How did punk end up becoming the name for a particular kind of rock music? As we’ll see in this article from Salon, the answer is…complicated.
While it’s true that debates about the origins of the term “punk” to describe the scene can quickly devolve into triviality, the confusion surrounding the term is central to punk’s anarchic spirit, a confusion that is important to maintain, rather than resolve. Originally, “punck” was used to describe a prostitute or harlot; in 1596—the first known appearance of the word in print—the writer Thomas Lodge used the word like this: “He hath a Punck (as the pleasant Singer cals her).” Over the centuries, the meaning of the word has evolved, variously used to describe something worthless or foolish, empty talk, nonsense, a homosexual, or a person of no account.
More recently, in the decades prior to the emergence of the punk music scene, the word punk can be found scattered throughout novels and stories by the likes of Ernest Hemingway, William S. Burroughs, and others. In Hemingway’s story “The Mother of a Queen” from his collection Winner Take Nothing (1933), the narrator says “this fellow was just a punk, you understand, a nobody he’d ever seen before … ” Dashiell Hammett’s novel The Maltese Falcon (1930) features a scene where Sam Spade tells Gutman “we’ve absolutely got to give them a victim. There’s no way out of it. Let’s give them the punk.” In Burroughs’s first novel Junky (1953), the narrator observes as two “young punks got off a train carrying a lush between them.” And Thomas Pynchon uses the term in V. (1963) like this: “There was nothing so special about the gang, punks are punks.”