History of “Punk”

Colleague Sam, who really should be counted as the culprit for many of my pontifications here, brought the following to mind recently. He walked in (in all fairness, I was in his office this time) and asked, apropos of nothing:

When did the meaning of “punk” change from meaning “prison bitch” to its current usage?

Call me dumbstruck. And, no, that’s not a direct quote, but it is pretty close. So, Karen and I hopped on the ole Oxford English Dictionary (OED) to see what was what. And discovered that dear Sam was correct. Here’s what we found:

1. A prostitute. Now rare (hist. in recent use).

2. a. Originally: a boy or young man kept by an older man as a (typically passive) sexual partner, a catamite (obs.). Later: a man who is made use of as a sexual partner by another man, esp. by force or coercion. Now chiefly Prison slang.
b. U.S. slang. A young male companion of a tramp, esp. one who is kept for sexual purposes.

3. U.S. slang.
a. (a) A person of no account; a despicable or contemptible person; (broadly) a person, a fellow (rare);(b) a petty criminal; a hoodlum, a thug.
b. A coward; a weakling.

4. U.S. slang.
a. An amateur; an apprentice
b. A young person, or a person regarded as inexperienced or raw. Also: a young circus animal.

Of course, I’m sure you would be stunned to discover that this never comes up in punk histories (the best online one I’ve found is here; he also mentions most of the books that I would recommend). Now, if we leave aside that my favorite moment is undoubtedly “a person of no account” and that I am specifically excluding the references to “punk rock” right now (which, at least according to the OED, came into use in or around 1971–Rolling Stone gets credit for the first such usage), we can first see that Sam was not merely trying to spin me up (well, he likely was, but that’s another story); he was quite correct regarding earlier use of the term.*

In addition to my lives as mom, administrator, professor, and obsessive, I am, as an English major-type, an amateur linguist as well. My particular shtick is etymology–just ask my poor students who have been treated to the origins of various Sanskrit words and their relationship to Proto-Indo European. So, I started thinking about the shift that occurred to move from prostitute to “punk rock musician or fan.”** From what I can tell (at least based on what the OED provides as examples and dates), the sexual meanings associated with “punk” were around as early as the 16th century, first used to mean “prostitute” in or about 1575 and to mean “passive male sexual partner” in or around 1698. Now, the conflation of terms here isn’t particularly surprising, but it is worth noting that in both of the earliest uses, drunkenness is mentioned (we’ll get to punk drunks in later editions).***

So, over the course of 400 years, the term shifts from “prostitute” and drunken, submissive male to punk–as in punk music? It is an interesting progression, and one worth exploring in more detail. So, I propose to do this in stages; we’ll call it There and Back Again. Though I’m not sure how or when the adoption of the term took place (In ’71, Rolling Stone probably was picking up on something else). What intrigues me is the close proximity of the old definitions and the new–the (un?)intentional overlaps in meaning.

For instance, the first meaning referenced in the second definition recalls the chickenhawks that coexisted with American punk (especially in L.A.)** And, heavens, who could forget the stories that were traded about the Go-Gos and Joan Jett, which pick up on similar themes of degradation. And I’m not sure that reliance on rumor versus truth is sufficient. As with all forms of popular music, one piece of the punk image was the sex (and sex was even more pointedly capitalized on by glitter rock before and glam after). Craig O’Hara devotes a good bit of time in his Philosophy of Punk to the relationship between sexuality and Punk, and no Darby Crash story is complete without references to sex and sexuality (including the beard used in Decline). Granted, sexuality and punk have been discussed in several books and articles already, but it is worth exploring here, so that will be Episode 2 of this History.

Episode 3 will pick up with the punk drunks and their stories, and, most likely, we’ll wander into other addictions that permeated the scene. In the meantime, I’m going to root through some mags and ‘zines to suss out when punk reappeared on the scene and from which region it came, because Mississippian Sam also pointed out that in the ’50s definition 3 was oft employed in the South in reference to those chaps we now more often refer to as greasers; I think a study of the product relationship between greased hair and spiked is in order, don’t you?

So, stay tuned dear readers, for we’ll be seeing much from the likes Darby and his gang, the Pistols, and, perhaps, a drift down the lane to visit our friends Betty Blowtorch as we explore the developments away from degradation. And, of course, our hero Duff will make an occasional appearance, perhaps allowing us to peer from the edge of punk into glam for a spell.


* Such usage still exists in African American slang, according to the OED, though it appears to refer to any homosexual man (and, at that, appears to be fairly limited, at least in written material). It was also a term associated with hobo/railroad culture; punks were the young boys rumored to have been “kept as playthings” by hobos. The veracity of that 1973 claim is unclear for this blogger.

**This, my friends, is what I once called my “analytical nature.” Don’t be fooled; it’s a compulsive, if charming and goofy, behavior. And, Sam knows this and thus was exploiting my obsessions. Blame him entirely.

***I realize that the words rhyme and than fact alone may account for the frequency with which they are used together.

****For a particularly mindbending fictional take on the punk/sex bit, take a look at What We Do is Secret by Kief Hillsbery; here’s a sample. The novel contains the single best description of a mosh pit ever.

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