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One post often leads to another. When I wrote about the word steampunk, I learned things about the word punk that I hadn’t known before.

Three meanings I’ve always attached to the word punk are:

1. punk (noun): a smart-alecky, no-account adolescent boy.
Leo [Gorcey] was the filmic prototype of the young punk.
Justin Bieber is a punk, a product of social media.

2. punk (noun): a long skinny taper used to light fireworks.
Fireworks should be lit with punk or an extended butane lighting device. 
Don’t leave matches and lighted punk where ladies may tread on them. 

3. punk (adjective): in poor health, under the weather.
Sadie is feeling punk: I think her tooth is bothering her.
I woke up feeling punk, but now I feel better.

Here are some other uses of the noun punk:

Note: The dates refer to citations in the Oxford English Dictionary. The first is the earliest citation; the second is the most recent.

a prostitute (1575-1983)

a boy or young man kept as a passive sexual partner by an older man (1698-2001)

the young male companion of a tramp, especially one kept for sexual purposes (1907-2002)

derogatory term for a homosexual man (1935-1999)

a person of no account; a petty criminal; a hoodlum, a thug (1893-2004)

a coward or a weakling (1939-2003)

an amateur; an apprentice (1920-1989)

a performer or fan of punk rock (1976-2003)

Meanings of punk as an adjective include: contemptible, despicable; thuggish; inexperienced (1907-2001)

The OED offers the following definition of the word punk relating to the lighting of fireworks:

soft decayed or rotten wood, especially as used for tinder 1678-1994)

slang term for bread (1891-1991)

incense, especially Chinese incense (1844-2000)

A piece of a material that smolders when ignited, used to light fireworks or the like (1852-2005)

something worthless; foolish or meaningless talk; nonsense, rubbish 1869-1973)

New meanings for this old word are still developing, including a verb, “to punk.” Apparently the past participle is punk’d:

Taylor Swift gets Punk’d by Justin Bieber
Jusin Bieber gets punk’d by Ashton Kutcher.

The odd spelling is from a candid camera show called Punk’d.

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5 thoughts on “Punk”

  1. The final version mentioned, to punk, means to play a practical joke.

    I would guess that somebody turned the actions of a punk (a whippersnapper) into a verb. Why does it describe a practical joke rather than an injurious action? We sometimes take on or apply denigrating labels facetiously. When I was in high school, we took it as a sign of affection when Mr. Pizzi called us turkeys. Some would take offense at the term, but we loved it. You can find far worse examples in today’s uncouth cultures.

    Probably, somebody, somewhere (probably in Hollywood culture), was the victim of a practical joke and exclaimed, “You punk!” From there, punk was transformed into a verb.

    Pretty good explanation for just a guess, no?

  2. The past-tense of the verb punk is punked. Punk’d was a TV show hosted by Ashton Kutcher wherein he played (sometimes very elaborate) pranks on celebrities. The verb form is gaining acceptability. I’ve even used it in pseudo-professional writing (emails to colleagues, etc.).

    The verb can be used in the sense of a harmless practical joke or an actual injurious action. The motive isn’t usually malicious, though. Friends punk each other. Enemies don’t (the exception to this is someone can “punk” the police or other authority figure). If a punking is illegal, the victim isn’t likely to report it to the police, and if it’s immoral, it’s not likely to end a relationship.

    Here are some examples:

    If I tie my buddy’s shoes together so he trips when he tries to walk, I’ve punked him. If I tie together the shoes of the fat kid with acne and bad breath, I’m being a bully.

    If my buddy’s girlfriend and I sit him down and tell him she’s pregnant with my child when she’s, we’ve punked him. If I actually get my buddy’s girlfriend pregnant, that’s an affair, not a punking.

    If I, a gay man, throw glitter at Newt Gingrich, I’ve punked him. If I shout and act disruptively at a lecture by Newt Gingrich, I’ve been an ass.

    If I’m Ashton Kutcher, and I swap out a celebrity’s car with an exact replica, but with keys that don’t match the ignition, well then I’ve Punk’d him.

  3. Punk, speaking in the terms of the musical genre, would mean usually politically anger lyrics, fast distorted guitars, and an emphasis on speed and live energy. However, Punk became a widely used term to describe everyone from Black Flag to Devo to Nirvana to Vic Chesnutt. Punk, nowadays, I’d say means more against the norm or establishment in general. It’s a tricky term and one people all have slightly differing and strong opinions about in the punk scene. There are also a lot of sub genres of punk, such as hardcore, crust punk, folk punk, etc.

  4. In reference to the first definition, I’ve viewed “punk” as an acceptable word to describe a smart-alecky, no-account boy OR girl. Is that not accurate? I guess I never thought of “punk” as a gender-specific term.

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