The strange origins of the word “punk”

When the word “punk” is thrown about today, chances are the conversations (a) a form of loud, fast alt-rock; or (b) some ner-do-well in a leather jacket and/or with a can of spray paint preparing to tag your fence. But the word has a much richer etymology than that.

Did Shakespeare invent the word?

William Shakespeare is credited with inventing many words including assassination, manager, scuffle, swagger, and uncomfortable. Did he also come up with punk? Probably not, but the word does appear in All’s Well That Ends Well, which was written in either 1604 or 1605. It appears in Act II, Scene I when the Clown says:

As fit as ten groats is for the hand of an attorney,
as your French crown for your taffeta punk, as Tib’s
rush for Tom’s forefinger, as a pancake for Shrove
Tuesday, a morris for May-day, as the nail to his
hole, the cuckold to his horn, as a scolding queen
to a wrangling knave, as the nun’s lip to the
friar’s mouth, nay, as the pudding to his skin.

The Clown uses the turn to describe a well-dressed prostitute/whore. Chances are Will picked heard the word on the streets of London sometime after it entered the lexicon in the 1590s. The Shakespeare connection explains why “Taffety Punk” came to be used as the name of some theatre groups.

Punks used to be rent boys

By the 18th century, a punk was young man kept by an older man for his sexual pleasure. There’s a bawdy song from the era called “The Women’s Complaint to Venus” that features the lines

The Beaus too, whom most we rely’d on

At Night make a punk

Of him that’s first drunk

Tho’ unfit for the Sport as John Dryden.

Basically, a punk was a bottom whether he liked it or not.

The Scottish have a claim on the word, too

As far back as the 1530s, the Scots used the word spunk, which referred to some burning embers or ashes. By the time settlers arrived in Virginia, that the “s” had been dropped and punk (or ponk) was used to describe a bundle of sticks–usually rotten wood–that was used as kindling.

Rotten: Now we’re getting somewhere

In the middle 1890s, people were using the word punk to denote someone who was worthless, a young criminal or young hobo. Within a decade, a punk was anyone–usually a young male, though–who appeared to be up to no good.

Marlon Brando’s role

In 1953, a young Marlon Brando starred as Johnny Strabler, a young leather-jacketed biker in the movie The Wild One. As the leader of The Black Rebels Motorcycle Club (yes, that’s where the band got their name), he leads his gang through a series of misadventures. Strabler–the kind of dude every parent feared in the 50s–became a cultural icon and synonymous with the term punk.

Now we can start talking about music

There were a series of garage bands during the 60s that adopted Johnnyt Strabler’s look with the leather jackets and/or tough-guy attitude, most notably The Barbarians (whose drummer had a hook in place of his left hand) and ? and the Mysterians. As far as anyone can tell, Dave Marsh was the first to use the term “punk rock” when writing about the Mysterians.

Over to you, New York

In 1975, a New York band called The Dictators released an album entitled Go Girl Crazy. An inner photo features the group posing for a photo in a White Castle hamburger store while wearing leather biker jackets. This again reminded people of Brando in The Wild One and, inevitably the term punk. You can see why.

Around the same time, three fans of the new New York music subculture, Legs McNeil, John Holmstrom and Ged Dunn, started up a fanzine that covered groups like the Dictators, The New York Dolls, Lou Reed, The Stooges and newer groups like The Ramones. They called their ‘zine Punk, largely because of the above Dictators photo (although some insist that they copped the term from the writings of Dave Marsh and Lester Bangs in Creem magazine). To those into the scene building around CBCB, anyone who was featured in Punk played punk music or punk rock.

Here’s the cover of the first issue. Not that Lou Reed is wearing leather as well as the reference to Brando.

And finally, what of Britain?

Credit the Ramones. While everyone back home was celebrating the American Bicentennial on July 4, 1976, the Ramones were showing nascent British punks how it was done with a show at the Roundhouse in London.

By the end of that set, punk was off and running.



Alan Cross

is an internationally known broadcaster, interviewer, writer, consultant, blogger and speaker. In his 40+ years in the music business, Alan has interviewed the biggest names in rock, from David Bowie and U2 to Pearl Jam and the Foo Fighters. He’s also known as a musicologist and documentarian through programs like The Ongoing History of New Music.

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