What’s with the Punk?

punk (pŭngk) n., slang
1. a young ruffian; hoodlum.
2. a suffix you can put after any noun to magically create a new style, genre, or sub-culture

The “Punk ethos” began sometime during the mid-1970’s and grew though the 1980, and was defined by loud music, leather jackets, ripped jeans, spiked or mohawk hair (usually dyed), and serious attitude problems toward authority. This grungy style and rebellious attitude seemed to have influenced the coining of the moniker “cyberpunk” to describe the dark, gritty future envisioned by William Gibson and Bruce Sterling, and seen visually in the movie Blade Runner.  Cyberpunk, however, was not such much “punk” as it was a dystopic cybernetic nightmare future, mixed with hard-boiled film noir.

But the monikerization of genre’s to be dubbed “punk” did not end with cyberpunk. Steampunk followed suit (around the time of the publication of the Difference Engine by Gibson and Sterling), and after this a literal deluge of this-punk and that-punk. Today we have cyberpunk, steampunk, dieselpunk, clockpunk, biopunk, splatterpunk, and postcyberpunk. Just recently I heard the terms Depressionpunk (that’s Depression-era punk), and most frightening of all, stitchpunk used to describe Tim Burton’s movie “9“. Stitchpunk? Seriously?

What a fun game it is to create a new style or genre by applying the word punk after any noun. Let’s punk pick a few words at random:  Herring, Crowd, Drama, Rat, Scratch, Scarf, Beer, Mind, Remote, and Ball. Not bad. Adding -punk at the end and we have 10 new genres to play with: herringpunk, crowdpunk, dramapunk, ratpunk, scratchpunk, scarfpunk, beerpunk, mindpunk, remotepunk, and finally ballpunk. Enjoy. I hope you feel inspired.

But what the heck is punk anyway? According to the Most Worshipful and Eternally Enlightening Oxford English Dictionary, a “punk” is a male prostitute made to work for other men — at least that was the original usage for over 300 years between the 16th and 19th centuries. That should raise a few eyebrows, I think. Still want to call yourself a steampunk?

Fear not. The modern usage has taken precedent over the original usage, but I still must wonder:  “what makes steampunk (or anything -punk) actually punkish?” I have thought long and hard on this, and have come to the conclusion that it just sounds good. Saying that you “read steampunk” is a lot easier than saying you “read modern-day written alternative history retro-Victorian stories with airships, goggles, and wacky gadgets”.

So what does “punk” really mean? It is almost as if a new definition has taken shape since the 1990. While the word “punk” by itself still implies loud music, leather jackets, ripped jeans, spiked or mohawk hair, I would put forward that the suffix “-punk” means “a style or genre that emphasizes individualism, misfit characters, and anti-establishment attitude.” And so, with that definition of -punk, cyberpunk, steampunk, dieselpunk, and all the rest, make a whole lot more sense.

…Except for stitchpunk. That just doesn’t make any sense at all.

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4 Responses

  1. Thank you! I have made the correction on Blade Runner. The “Depressionpunk” moniker might have been tongue-in-cheek. See this blog: http://io9.com/365287/is-it-time-for-depressionpunk and this blog: http://www.mykeamend.com/new/2009/07/16/depression-punk-pondered/

  2. Velvet Cyberpunk says:

    I am a huge fan of the original three genres, cyberpunk (obviously), steampunk, and splatterpunk. Those terms were all coined in the 80s and are legitimate genres. I am also fond of elfpunk, biopunk (which is really a sun genre of cyberpunk), and I have become obsessed with dieselpunk and it has since become my second favorite of the punk sub genres behind cyberpunk. Having said that, depressionpunk? really? Do we really need depressionpunk, especially since dieselpunk almost always takes place from 1920-1950…? I don’t really begrudge the new punk sub genres because there will be someone who really enjoys it and quite frankly they are lots of fun, but come on, why make up a genre that is already covered? Also, I have not heard of stitchpunk and now must go to Google to see what that is.

    I really enjoyed this blog entry; though I do have one small correction, the film is spelled Blade Runner, it’s two words not one.

  1. August 29, 2010

    […] also have no love for the “-punk” suffix in general, and find it rather inappropriate for most works that it is applied to. Then again, it […]

  2. December 20, 2013

    […] has some punk elements, I’m just going to call it “wonderpunk” (see my essay on What’s with the Punk?). That is, it is from the same conceptual cut as Alice in Wonderland/Through the Looking Glass, but […]

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