The word “punk” feels quintessentially modern, conjuring images of fans and performers associated with the musical genre. Teenagers with mohawks in ratty leather jackets, sneering musicians wearing ripped T-shirts, audiences moshing in grungy clubs, speakers blaring distorted tunes. But the word has been in use far longer than the mid-1970s when The Sex Pistols and their peers stormed the public consciousness—this disreputable term stretches back centuries.
“Punk” first pops up in the 1500s, and for the next two centuries was commonly employed as a vulgar term for “prostitute.” You can even find it in two Shakespeare plays. In "The Merry Wives of Windsor" (1602), Act 2, Scene 2, Pistol says of a woman: “This punk is one of Cupid's carriers.” In "Measure for Measure" (1623), Act 5, Scene 1, Lucio says: “My lord, she may be a punk; for many of them are neither maid, widow, nor wife.”
“Punk” also took on other meanings, most of them negative. The word became synonymous with nonsense and foolishness, referred to something inferior, and was the term used for an inexperienced and generally worthless young person, often a petty crook.
The word became synonymous with nonsense and foolishness.
In the early 20th century, “punk” was most popular in showbiz and underworld circles. In the 1930s, “punk day” was circus slang for the day when children were admitted free. In criminal argot, a “punk kid” was a gangster’s apprentice, though the term also had overtones of “catamite.”
In the American prison system, “punk” became a popular slang term for a young man who is treated as sexual property. The Oxford Living Dictionary further describes it as a “derogatory term for a passive male homosexual.”
In the 1960s and '70s, the word entered the popular lexicon through police dramas in film and television. The lowest criminals were called “punks,” most memorably when Clint Eastwood’s Dirty Harry sticks a .44 Magnum in a suspect’s face and asks him if he feels lucky. “Well, do ya, punk?”
The lowest criminals were called “punks,” most memorably when Clint Eastwood’s Dirty Harry sticks a .44 Magnum in a suspect’s face and asks him if he feels lucky.
Around this time, the word began to gain musical currency. The first known reference is Ed Sanders, cofounder of the band The Fugs, describing his solo album as "punk rock" in the "Chicago Tribune" in March 1970. In the December 1970 issue of "Creem", critic Lester Bangs referred to Iggy Pop as "that Stooge punk." And in the April 1971 issue of "Rolling Stone," Greg Shaw described The Guess Who as “punk rock and roll.”
The floodgates opened when critic Lenny Kaye used the term "punk rock" as a label for the primitive and raucous ‘60s garage rock groups he compiled on his influential "Nuggets" anthology. And a few years later when Kaye formed a band with Patti Smith, their music was also called “punk”—alongside fellow New York City musicians like Richard Hell and The Ramones.
When the Sex Pistols unleashed “the filth and the fury” in the U.K., per the famous tabloid headline, this gleefully anti-social music was firmly established as punk. A word that its practitioners were happy to embrace in all its negative connotations.
- Miriam Webster Dictionary
- Oxford Living Dictionary
- Etymology Dictionary