A musical culture began to take shape amid the unrest of Great Britain during the mid nineteen-seventies. 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 musical landscape forever. While the modern day use of the word “punk” might suggest anarchistic youth, William Shakespeare used the term quite differently over four hundred years ago. So how did this word evolve from a derogatory term aimed at a woman to a derogatory term aimed at a young man?
Although its exact etymology is not known, the term “punk” has survived numerous changes in meaning throughout the centuries. The first recorded use of the term (unknown origin) occurred in the early 1590s, 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, penned between 1604 and 1605.
The Scottish, spunk, meaning “a spark,” is a 1530s reference to burning embers and ashes. A similar use of the word can be found in a 1618 account by native inhabitants of Virginia as a 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.” Native peoples throughout the Delaware region of the United States used the word ponk around this time to reference “rotten wood used as tinder.”
By 1896, and perhaps fueled by the “rotten” connotation to the term, 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.