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“Drunk, obnoxious, smart but not pretentious”: The long, low history of the word “punk”

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Popular music’s scuzziest four-letter word was in use hundreds of years before The Ramones exploded onto the scene
While it’s true that debates about the origins of the term “punk” to describe the scene can quickly devolve into triviality, the confusion surrounding the term is central to punk’s anarchic spirit, a confusion that is important to maintain, rather than resolve. Originally, “punck” was used to describe a prostitute or harlot; in 1596—the first known appearance of the word in print—the writer Thomas Lodge used the word like this: “He hath a Punck (as the pleasant Singer cals her) .” Over the centuries, the meaning of the word has evolved, variously used to describe something worthless or foolish, empty talk, nonsense, a homosexual, or a person of no account. More recently, in the decades prior to the emergence of the punk music scene, the word punk can be found scattered throughout novels and stories by the likes of Ernest Hemingway, William S. Burroughs, and others. In Hemingway’s story “The Mother of a Queen” from his collection (1933) , the narrator says “this fellow was just a punk, you understand, a nobody he’ d ever seen before… ” Dashiell Hammett’s novel (1930) features a scene where Sam Spade tells Gutman “we’ ve absolutely got to give them a victim. There’s no way out of it. Let’s give them the punk.” In Burroughs’s first novel (1953) , the narrator observes as two “young punks got off a train carrying a lush between them.” And Thomas Pynchon uses the term in (1963) like this: “There was nothing so special about the gang, punks are punks.” The word punk in relation to music is both trickier and easier to trace; while pretty much everyone now knows punk when they hear it, in the late 1960s and early 1970s, the term had not yet taken on the coded weight of meaning that it carries today. In his first nationally published work—for in 1969—Lester Bangs reviewed the MCS’s album, and wrote, “never mind that they came on like a bunch of sixteen-year-old punks on a meth power trip.” In May 1971 Dave Marsh, writing in Creem, used the phrase “punk rock, ” and the following month in the same magazine in his essay “Psychotic Reactions and Carburetor Dung, ” Bangs, writing about the influence of the Yardbirds, said that “then punk bands started cropping up who were writing their own songs but taking the Yardbirds’ sound and reducing it to this kind of goony fuzztone clatter.” Punk, as associated with rock and roll, gradually gained currency, so that by 1974, the word could even be found in the rarefied pages of none other than. Reviewing a New York Dolls concert at the Bottom Line in May 1974, Ellen Willis wrote, in reference to opening act Suzi Quatro, “I was getting a naïve kick out of watching a woman play rock-and-roll punk.” And writing in the in November 1975, just a little over a month after the Ramones had signed with Sire, Greil Marcus, in reviewing Patti Smith’s debut album, wrote that “the concepts that lie behind Smith’s performance—her version of rock and roll fave raves, the New York avant-garde, surrealist imagery and aesthetic strategy, the beatnik hipster pose, the dark side of the street punk soul—emerge more clearly with each playing, until they turn into schtick.”

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