Wayne State University
Cite as: Elster, Michael. 2014. Punk. Lexiculture: Papers on English Words and Culture, vol. 1, article 5. https://glossographia.files.wordpress.com/2014/03/punk.pdf
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.
“‘Punk’ is a totally stupid word and I feel like I should be thrown in music jail for using it…one of the worst things about the word: It’s so fucking broad.” (Dan Ozzi, 2013).
Dan Ozzi, the columnist who wrote the above quote in an article for the blog Noisey, thinks that the word punk is “the grossest word in music” (2013). He says it is too broad, and that it is bordering on meaninglessness. He falls short of saying things like ‘punk used to mean something,’ but the gist of the article is clear: if punk were a word worth using it would point to something more concrete. He is not the only person to share this sentiment. A casual web search of “what is punk?” on Google will result in endless forum threads debating what punk is, whether it is or should be self-defined, or how it is a meaningless catchall category. This raises a few questions. If “punk” really is so broad that it is bordering on meaninglessness, why do people continue to use it, and what do they mean when they use it? Furthermore why do people who think it is meaningless, such as this columnist, have such strong opinions on it? How has punk gone from a generally derogatory word to a rather productive morpheme in cases like the word “steampunk,” “cyberpunk,” or any of the “-punk” musical genres in the late 20th century?
No good punks: origins as a derogatory word
The etymology of punk is unknown, but the historical meanings of it are clear. In the time of Shakespeare it was a synonym for a prostitute. He writes, “She may be a Puncke: for many of them, are neither Maid, Widow, nor Wife” (Mr. William Shakespeares comedies, histories & tragedies, 1623). In one of the first discernable semantic shifts, punk switched genders and social setting by the early 20th century to mean “a punk’s a boy that’ll…Give himself to a man,” (Berkman, A, Prison Memoirs of an Anarchist, 1912). Despite this shift, the old meaning did not fall out of usage, and the Oxford English Dictionary cites usage going up to the 1980’s, but it was very rare to find it in this form. Still, it is clear that the conception of a punk is tied to people who commit sexually deviant acts, male or female. Most of the semantic shifts throughout the 20th century work along these lines: it becomes a derogatory word for homosexual men, whether in a prison setting or not, a word for a tramp’s sexual companion, and eventually just a stand in for “a contemptible person,” according to the OED. The transformation of the word punk to a specific word about people to a word that generally meant ‘bad’ is apparent in print media. “Punk Pitching,” an alliterative way of saying ‘bad pitching,’ appears in a headline from the Oxnard Press Courier from August 31st, 1944 and a similar headline about a “Punk Fight” from 1946 appears in the June 20th Toledo Blade.
While these examples demonstrate some isolated meanings, some uses relied on every meaning of the word punk in order to evoke the image of a totalizing bad rather than a specific instance of it. Another 20th century newspaper article is a good example of all of “punk’s” constituent meanings in one instance. The headline from The Miami News in 1960 reads: “Did Punk Kill Women?” The article describes a possible murder suspect (the punk of the headline) as wearing “tight, worn blue jeans, a leather jacket, leather gloves, pink socks, and dirty white shoes.” It later describes him as “walking in a rather effeminate way.” Not only does it make subtle reference to the potential homosexuality of the “punk,” (since homosexuality was largely associated with acting opposite gendered in the 60s) it also attributes markers of youth culture to “punk.” Based on the description in the paper, the scene could have been a screen shot from a movie with Marlon Brando. Furthermore, the article repeatedly calls the suspect “the youth.” So not only does this particular quote illustrate a combination of femininity, homosexuality, and contemptible qualities, it also adds an association with youth culture. Whoever wrote the headline read the description and thought that “punk” was the best was to imply all of these characteristics. The inclusion of youth culture to the meaning of punk is somewhat new, but it certainly lasted at least into the next decade. To this day Google’s ngram shows words like “young,” and “little” as the two top descriptors of “punk.” “Young” was in the lead up to the 80’s.
A Google Ngram search for verbs that appear before the word punk essentially lists all possible conjugations of the verb “to be” in the top. In this sense, the verbs “feeling,” “called,” and “feel” all make sense. For most of the 20th century, someone called another person a “punk.” They did not ascribe it to themselves until the association of punk subculture. But one verb in particular that was popular from the 1930’s to 1950’s does not quite fit these definitions: “burning”
The OED lists a second entry for punk as “soft, decayed or rotten wood” that one uses for tinder or to start a fire. One cited usage is “As the East-Indians use Moxa [in blistering], so these [in Virginia] burn with Punk, which is the inward Part of the Excrescence or Exuberance of an Oak.” This citation, from 1687, is contemporaneous with Shakespeare’s usage meaning a prostitute. Although this is a separate entry, looking at the world in total provides a more robust understanding of the word. Uses that the OED cites for either of punk’s entries, whether it refers to gay men, contemptible people, and prostitutes, or subpar wood used for tinder and fires, occur concurrently with one another, and on the whole mean “bad.” However, the additional entry about kindling taken with the connotations of homosexuality in other entries provokes a comparison to another word: faggot.
The connection here is provocative—and may be nothing more than that—but the possible connection seems worth pointing out. Punk could be throwaway, rotten wood, only good for starting fires, or when it was aimed at people it could connote homosexuality, passiveness, contemptibility, or femininity. Both forms of the word existing contemporaneously set up a linguistic structure in which people that are “punk” are akin to the types of wood that are “punk.” That is to say, both words denoted valueless things or people. While I found no data with ambiguous examples of “punk,” where the speaker may have been playing off of either definition, searching for this in particular may help explain why the punk subject became increasingly male in the latter half of the 20th century, and would further an investigation into movements like queercore and riot grrrl that took the punk as a straight male for granted.
It is important to note at this point that punk was not nearly as severe a term as faggot by the 1960s, if ever. In a 1963 edition of The Lewiston Daily Sun, a newspaper from Lewiston, Massachusetts, the editors felt that “punk” was an appropriate word to appear in print. Furthermore, as the article shows, politicians felt it was appropriate to call a colleague a “punk” in public. The above examples are not meant to frame punk as a word that is as direct and violent as the word faggot, nor are they aimed at proving that it is or should be considered as such. They do provide a starting point for more research into more ambiguous uses of the word punk to see if the presence of both definitions ever affected its social meaning, and whether the connection between one definition of “punk” and “faggot” is a coincidence of no consequence for the creation of a punk subject or not.
Complicating the case for language reclamation
Sometime in the 70’s or possibly the late 60’s, punk underwent another semantic shift. This is when punk became largely associated with a musical genre and its respective subculture. The early citations of this semantic shift seem more or less understandable. L. Bangs, a writer for Creem Magazine describes a band’s music by saying “Man, that is true punk; that is so fucked up it’s got class up the ass,” (1972). Considering the past associations with youth culture in the 60’s and the generally negative connotations, this shift seems like a logical—but still inventive—use. To describe a type of music that was more technically aggressive and vulgar, and to associate it with a rebellious youth culture, people used the term “punk rock.” There is a degree of linguistic play here. Uses of “punk rock” make sense by the invocation of “punk’s” negative connotations, and this linguistic play ends up being culturally productive. In the late 70’s and early 80’s “punks” become a definitive group in popular culture. Still, the newspaper clipping below from 1977 has the rather looming headline “the punks are coming,” and the clipping from 1980 still conjures up images of the former definition of punk in the way it describes their dress and associates them with violence and negative connotations.
In order to fully investigate the nuance around “punk” and its reclamation, it is worth asking who reclaimed it. At least until 1980, coverage of “punk” or “punks” still evoked images of violent youth and made use of negative connotations that were present in decades earlier. So even though there was a subcultural group using the word as a cultural identity, it is not the case that the meaning simply “flipped.” Most uses in popular media use it as a descriptive word aimed at evoking older negative connotations, not as an identity people are swarming to adopt. Even if headlines using phrases such as “The punks are coming” or articles talking about “punk violence,” are referring to a particular subculture, it is not clear that this is devoid of all the historical social connotations of punks as contemptible people. In some ways one can understand the new uses of “punk” in the 70’s and 80’s to be just another linguistic shift, one that recognizes the appeal or intrigue of danger, badness, and vulgarity.
Looking further into the question of who exactly is reclaiming “punk,” it makes sense to look towards the LGBTQ community, given the word’s historical context. There is no attempt by the LGBTQ community to reclaim “punk” as their own. In fact, the word the LGBTQ community is best known for reclaiming is “queer” (hence the Q). There were certainly allusions to homosexual fetish-culture in punk fashion, even as reported by the media: leather, chains, and bondage pants all conjure images of gay fetish scenes, but there is no clear indication that these fashion styles were inspired by or meant to promote acceptance of non-normative sexualities. Plus, when one considers modern derivatives such as “punk-ass,” that draw very explicit and clear connections to punk’s history as a derogatory term for passive homosexual men, it is clear that despite the reclamation of punk by a subculture, its past meanings still persist, and the latest semantic shift had nothing to do with reclaiming the word for all of the people to which it referred.
Looking to the founders or prominent voices of the subculture can yield a mixed bag of results. The closest the Ramones come to defining punk appears in lyrics to the song “Judy is a Punk.”
Jackie is a punk
Judy is a runt
They both went down to Berlin, joined the Ice Capades
And, oh I don’t know why
(1976, track 3)
This is not exactly an example of clearly defining and owning a subcultural identity. Two years later, the British band Crass had proclaimed punk to be dead:
Yes that’s right, punk is dead,
It’s just another cheap product for the consumers head.
Bubblegum rock on plastic transistors,
Schoolboy sedition backed by big time promoters.
CBS promote the Clash,
But it ain’t for revolution, it’s just for cash.
Punk became a fashion just like hippy used to be
And it ain’t got a thing to do with you or me.
(1978, track 5)
Crass, a band that most would consider a classic anarcho-punk band, were not especially concerned with promoting themselves as punks, favoring instead to declare punk dead. However, the ability to declare it dead does demonstrate some sort of linkage to what punk is supposed to be or what punk was. In this passage it is clear that they equated punk to some sort of anti-capitalist or anti-corporate ethos, but they explicitly exclude the Clash from this definition, a band that is unquestionably a representative the punk subculture.
Rather than providing a clear and cohesive meaning of “punk,” the passage from Crass is an example of a usage of “punk” that aims to establish some sort of cultural identity or boundary. Similarly the publication of the magazine Punk in 1976 showed an intentional effort to align “punk” with a specific subculture. The magazine names the “first punk” as Marlon Brando, a clear reference to an image of youth culture that was imagined as dangerous in the 60’s.
The intriguing thing about this use and its attempt to establish “punk” as a cultural identity by reference to a proverbially ‘primordial’ punk is that it works on images of punks that were prominent decades earlier, such as the news clipping about the dangerous leather-cladded youth. Even in new or different uses of “punk,” all of its cultural connotations present themselves. In this way, the subcultural punk played off of the negative connotations of “punk” in order to produce a new meaning. Ironically, because of the restrictiveness of the punk subject before the subculture, this new cultural identity was also predominantly straight and male during its subcultural reclamation (something that would become increasingly contested during sub-movements like riot grrrl, queercore, and anarcho-punk). How women punks made a claim to this identity is a provocative question that also escapes the scope of this paper.
So what exactly is it that Dan Ozzi, the columnist from Noisey, so upset about? “Punk” has always had a broad definition, and it has always been tied up in a number of cultural value judgments about people. The shift in the 70’s was originally an inventive descriptor of a new musical trend, and only clearly denoted a specific subculture later. On top of that, this shift did not dissolve the past meanings of the word.
The harsh reaction to punk’s broadness that is apparent in Ozzi’s column, or any number online forums dedicated to punk subculture, or Crass’ declaration that punk is dead, is borne out of an attempt to establish a hold on the cultural capital that punk has as a young, new, and cool cultural category. In earlier instances, such as those in Punk magazine or songs by Crass, setting a descriptive linguistic boundary was a way of establishing an identity that was part of a productive linguistic and cultural process. Ozzi’s column, on the other hand, is an extension of this, but it is a rather reactionary lamentation of the amount of linguistic productivity the word has, if not a call to control or restrict its linguistic productivity. Control or restriction of punk’s meaning would have barred the invention of words like “cyberpunk” and “steampunk.” Both have nothing to do with the original subculture, but they play on connotations of youth-culture, inventiveness, and coolness, all of which are attributed to “punk” because of the subculture of the 70’s and 80’s. One could argue that its productive potential is the most punk thing about “punk.” Given these examples, it is ironic that “punk’s” linguistic productivity is what Ozzi identifies as the undoing of punk subculture. Further, movements within punk have generally condemned the restrictiveness of it, not the openness. The contradiction between needing to establish a cultural boundary and wanting to fall within it is the very thing that kept punk from becoming a simple synonym for rascal.
The word punk has had a colorful past, and it is easy to get lost in all of its constituent meanings, but two things about its social history are clear. The first is that despite its varied uses and meanings, they all worked off of each other and produced connections that reflect the social standing and conception of certain people. The use of punk as a type of throwaway wood, and its use as a derogatory word for a homosexual work in conjunction with dichotomies of morally pure and morally impure, or socially valuable and socially valueless, or dominant and submissive. This paradigm is applicable to any number of other English words. “Black” in comparison to “white,” or “queer” in comparison to “square” or “straight” are all examples of words that could have multiple meanings and interpretations depending on context. On one hand they are simply descriptors, and on the other hand they have implications about the social value of the things or people they describe.
Second, punk’s varied history is one of the main contributors to its productive capabilities. If it really were so broad that it is meaningless, then it would probably fall out of usage. But it is clear that any of the things that are considered “punk” have some sort of criteria that make them so, even if that criterion is confusing by nature of the word’s opposing definitions. Its reclamation by a subculture furthered the productive capabilities by shifting its connotations within the dominant cultural paradigm, which gave it the ability to play off of either positive or negative connotations. This in turn led to attempts of language control that hindered its productive potential by those who identify with the subculture. “Punk” demonstrates both the productive and restrictive potential of linguistic shifts resulting in the creation of a cultural identity.
Exploring the outline of punk’s history further, and considering the socio-historical relationship between “punk” and homosexual people, provokes another look at the word “faggot.” While it is still clearly an insult, and a very harsh one, it has experienced shifts similar to “punk.” According to the OED, “faggot” was once a term of abuse for women, is now a derogatory term for gay men, and at one time was a word for bundles of wood used to start a fire. But who would want to adopt the word as a cultural identity? Fittingly, an example of a potential shift comes from a punk band.
Fake fags on the radio don’t sing for me
metrosexuals annoy the shit out of me
fake fags in Hollywood don’t impress me
try to demonstrate how I’m supposed to be
(Limp Wrist, “Fake Fags,” 2006)
This usage is, of course, meant to be provocative, given the current cultural context. Arguably, so was the first use of “punk” to describe music. The lyrics here are also an attempt by Limp Wrist to declare that there is a social and cultural boundary for who is a “fag” and that “fake fags” do not represent those who take the word as their own, while simultaneously contesting the punk as a straight male and creating space for a queer subject in punk. This frames a “fag” as something that yields a boundary: something that someone may actually want to be, rather than an insult. Given the current cultural meaning, and despite Limp Wrist’s efforts here, it is still not likely that “fag” or “faggot” are about to undergo major semantic shifts that lead to the words denoting a celebrated cultural identity rather than a derogatory category. However, this use of “fag” does have two parallels with “punk:” the establishment of a restrictive linguistic or cultural boundary as an act of producing a cultural identity, and the linguistic play off of oppositional parts of social dichotomies.
That is to say, while linguistic structures may organize words into hierarchized social dichotomies, such as the one between a derogatory word and a self-proclaimed cultural identity, semantic shifts along these lines do not work solely within this framework, but interrogate it. Words that play off of or subvert social dichotomies may have some of the most productive potential. And that is pretty punk.
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 One could argue that “-punk” is describing “cyber,” or “steam,” and not the other way around. That is to say, “-punk” is denoting how these particular subgenres of science fiction, “steam” and “cyber,” have “punk” qualities.