The word punk has a long and fascinating history. This post follows the word’s history backwards from contemporary genre names like cyberpunk and steampunk, back through punk’s modern identity as a musical-style-slash-oppositional-political-orientation, back through military slang for someone doing ‘company monkey’ work, back through underworld slang for a ‘bad woman’, back to Renaissance slang for a prostitute.
The Oxford English Dictionary lists many contemporary compound words that include the term punk, including agit-punk, cyberpunk, cypherpunk, Goth-punk, splatterpunk, and steampunk. The concept of steampunk, which has become an omnipresent feature of Comic Cons around the world, takes its original inspiration from a 1990 novel titled The Difference Engine, which imagines what the Victorian era would have been like if Charles Babbage had built his computing engines in the 1830s and the computer age had begun a century early. In other words, steampunk is called steampunk because it describes an aesthetic that brings the style and politics of cyberpunk into the 19th century, the Age of Steam.
In turn, the mother of –punk compounds, cyberpunk, first arose in the 1980s to describe works of art that brought the style and politics of punk to the world of computing. (The first usage of the term cyberpunk was a 1983 story of the same title by Bruce Bethke.) The spread of this term offers a potent reminder (to invoke the historian Michael Mahoney) that the history of the computer tracks with the history of the communities who embraced computing – and that these communities included not only technology professionals, but also cultural scenes, artistic movements, and music subcultures. In 1989, the Whole Earth Review made that very observation about cyberpunk novels: ‘Bill Gibson and other cyberpunk allies… spin out distinctive scenarios about gritty, not-too-distant futures made of washed-up computer cowboys, Pacific Rim mafias, ganja-smoking software hustlers, genetic surgeons, multinational corporations located in dilapidated city-states, rampant guerilla information undergrounds, contraband brain implants… this science fiction draws less from either science or other fiction than it does from rock and roll, heavy-metal comic books, and skateboard mags.’
Back in time to music. The musical genre of punk first arose in New York City in the 1970s and received its politics in London toward the 1980s. As Dick Hebdige notes in his classic work on punk style, Subculture: The Meaning of Style (1979), the dress (leather, spikes, safety pins), symbols (skulls, graffiti), and language of punk rockers were deliberate provocations: ‘things to whiten mother’s hair with’, in the phrase of the anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss. (Consider the kinds of names that punk bands tend to choose for themselves: The Misfits, The Rejects, The Unwanted, The Worst.)
The politics of punk arose from the combination of this musical genre with the anger and despair of working-class young people in Margaret Thatcher’s England. Features of that politics include an egalitarian ethos, a distrust of authority, and punk’s famous ‘Do It Yourself’ ethos, which encourages people to separate themselves creatively, economically, and socially from mainstream institutions. (As a classics professor once told me, Diogenes was the original punk.)
In the 1940s, members of the US military used punk as a friendly but derogatory term for someone doing clerical scutwork. The 1942 book Army Talk: A Familiar Dictionary of Soldier Speech, which promised to help families understand the slang of fathers, brothers, and sons serving in the Second World War, states, in part, that punk was ‘used as a familiar, and not always welcome, title for the company clerk, in the army and in the Marine Corps too, although this is not as common a sobriquet for him as “company monkey”.’
In the 19th century, the criminal underworld used punk as slang for a ‘wicked’ woman. The cant dictionary Vocabulum, or the Rogue’s Lexicon (1858), written by a former commissioner of the New York Police Department, includes the entry, ‘PUNK. A bad woman.’ (The book makes explicit when other terms refer to prostitutes.)
During the early modern period, the term punk referred to a prostitute. A search for the term in the database Early English Books Online turns up more than 250 texts that make use of the term. A typical example is the poem The threepenny-academy (1691), which makes reference to ‘A Tawdry Punk in fluttering Cloaths’. Another example is a cant dictionary of the period, titled A new dictionary of the canting crew in its several tribes of gypsies, beggers, thieves, cheats &c., with an addition of some proverbs, phrases, figurative speeches &c.: useful for all sorts of people (especially foreigners) to secure their money and preserve their lives; besides very diverting and entertaining being wholly new (1699), which has this entry for punk: ‘Punk, a little Whore.’
(If punk isn’t your style – though why wouldn’t it be? – the cant dictionary holds a whole range of other terms that refer to sex workers, including baggage, bloss, blower, buttock, case fro, cat, cattle, common woman, convenient, crack, curtezan, doxie, drab, fen, fire-ship, froe, game, hack, harridan, jilt, light friggat, Madam Van, Miss, punk, quean, and trull.)
In the past, linguists describe semantic change in terms of five major categories: generalization, in which a word’s meaning becomes less specific; narrowing, in which a word’s meaning becomes more specific; amelioration, in which a word’s meaning becomes more positive; pejoration, in which a word’s meaning becomes more negative; and metaphoric extension, in which a word’s meaning extends to apply to a new domain. Over the course of its history, the word punk has undergone considerable metaphoric extension. But it managed to hold onto its (ostensible) negative connotations even as it shifted from an insulting slang term applied to others to an identity label applied to the self. The negativity became the basis of the word’s modern connotations of defiance and pride.