A musical culture began to take shape amid the unrest of Great Britain during the mid-1970’s, spreading like wildfire in a drought. With the emergence of bands like the Sex Pistols and the Clash, the punk rock movement sparked a nihilistic ethos and a new sound that would change the imperialist island’s musical landscape forever. While “punk” in modern vernacular suggests anarchistic youth, William Shakespeare’s usage more than four centuries ago was decidedly different. So how did this word evolve from a derogatory term aimed at a woman to a derogatory term aimed at a cooler than average young man with innately superior taste in music?
Sex Pistols in London, 1976
William ‘the Bard’ Shakespeare
Although its exact etymology is not known, the term “punk” has survived numerous changes in meaning since it’s first appearance in historic records. The first recorded use of the word (unknown origin) dates all the way back to the early 1590’s – yes, 1590’s not 1950’s – with reference to a “prostitute, harlot.” The term “taffety punk,” a reference to “a well dressed whore,” appears in William Shakespeare’s All’s Well That Ends Well, which was penned circa 1604/1605.
The Scottish, spunk, for “a spark,” is a 1530’s reference to burning embers and ashes. A similar use of the word can be found in a 1618 account from colonial Virginia in 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.” The entire Delaware region of what is now the United States employed ponk around this time to mean “rotten wood used as tinder.”
By 1896, and perhaps fueled by the “rotten” connotation carried over for some 300 years, ‘punk’ had become synonymous with “something worthless” and “young criminal” — specifically in relation to a male youth. It is perhaps the latter definition that Dave Marsh had in mind when he coined the phrase “punk rock” in his May 1971 column featured in Creem magazine.