What does Shakespeare have to do with punk rock?

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 termpunk” 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.

Does the story behind the word “hip-hop” date back to the 19th century? Find out here.

Maths Week

The Irish Times October 15, 2010 Q Three mathematicians were discussing their ages, when the eldest one said to the youngest: “Eleven years ago I was twice your age”. The third mathematician also noticed a connection: “Twenty- two years ago I was twice your age,” he said to the youngest. web site cool maths games in our site cool maths games

The youngest pointed out that the square of her age and the square of the middle mathematician’s age is equal to the square of the older mathematician’s age. What are their ages?

A 33, 44, 55.

WHAT’S ON TODAY Maths in the City, Belfast, family event at Belfast City Hall from noon to 3pm.

TOMORROW Family Maths Fun, outdoor maths, games, puzzles and performers at Dunsink Observatory, Dublin, from noon to 2.30pm


  1. James Hutchings -  April 10, 2012 - 10:33 am

    As a few people have said, I thought it was more to do with ‘punk’ as in a young homosexual, softened and generalised to mean arrogant, worthless young men (‘you little punks!’).

  2. Rich -  September 4, 2011 - 7:28 am

    Likely related to “The Scottish, spunk, meaning “a spark,” is a 1530s reference to burning embers and ashes”, around 1970 in southeastern Massachusetts we called the smouldering sticks used to light fireworks fuses “punks”. They were pretty much stick incense without the scent.

    I can’t be sure where we picked the word up, but it was likely my Father, who was born in 1925 and grew up in Providence, RI. His family never particularly identified themselves as being of any particular national origin, although the paternal branch of the family was French Canadian.

  3. Jeff -  August 7, 2011 - 7:43 pm

    Interesting about the Dave Marsh reference. Yet another one of those instances where a term is invented and then something is found in order to fit the definition…

  4. jebbiii -  August 6, 2011 - 8:28 am

    I was immediately thinking of Huckleberry Finn and the book’s use of the term “spunk water”, being the foul water in the bowl of a rotten stump used in a potion, if i remember correctly. thanks a lot for the good read

  5. Bill -  August 4, 2011 - 5:56 am

    Oh, how I dislike the cliche, “that would change forever.”

  6. Fred B -  August 3, 2011 - 8:36 am

    “Punk” prior to its general usage as “hoodlum” was a common 20th century prison term for a young male on the receiving end of a homosexual encounter.

  7. Renoard -  August 3, 2011 - 2:10 am

    Punk has been used in American prisons to refer to the receiver of anal penetration during anal intercourse. A punk is often an unwilling participant who is cowed or coerced to participate. Hence Punk is synonymous with Bugger in British parlance and punking is synonymous to buggering. It is used as a pejorative almost exclusively in American dialect, except when referring to social or political protest as in the case of Punk Rock and literary genre’s like Cyberpunk and Steampunk.

  8. Tommy T -  August 2, 2011 - 11:35 am

    Shakespeare so rocks.

  9. Tommy T -  August 2, 2011 - 11:34 am

    Shakespeare rocks.

  10. jacki -  August 2, 2011 - 9:34 am

    taffeta is actually a very frilly (similar to tulle) type of material that is notoriously cheaper to make and kinda looks that way too :/

  11. shykiddo -  July 6, 2011 - 10:05 am

    thats awsome something new ;o

  12. charles plymell -  June 26, 2011 - 10:39 am

    The interst in etymology seems live & well in some interesting threads of Elijah Wald; A.Hastings; notjoemana;@archon,et.al. I don’t follow the branch to assains, but I’ve heard the term in connection with firecracter lighters, etc. As a footnote to the (stand-ins) for Koch Bros. who organised a symposium for Birchers at Wichita U. in early 50′s. I was present as ducktail hipster, sometimes called punk, even pre-Elvis, so my usage goes way back. The Bros, went under the radar since anything you buy today is somehow connected to their chemical fortunes, but they have recently resurfaced probably because the nation is too gone to care. The original link was sent to me by Mike Watt, bass spanker for Iggy, and a mover of the direction of music with his famous punk band of the 80′s The Minutemen.

  13. Graham -  June 20, 2011 - 3:29 pm

    My dad comes from an area where there is a large amount of irish travellers, and he picked up a lot of the lingo.
    Chav is actually a derivative of the slang word chavvie, which in romany terms is a young male.
    It doesn’t take a genius to work out that this could be used as a derogatory term for a misbehaving or sportswear wearing young man

  14. Dixiesuzan -  June 20, 2011 - 2:30 pm

    papadoc – “I don’t think that Shakespeare coined the term assassin.”

    Your quite correct.

    “Cannabis” whose fibers were once used for making hemp nautical rope, and sometimes known as “hemp”, is now generally referred to in certain quarters as “madicinal marijuana”. It has an interesting madicinal marijuana word history to tell. In Persia and Syria, about 1090 AD to 1272 AD or so, were a group of “hashish” eaters. Hashish eaters is the translation of the Arabic ḥashshāshīn. These were initially followers of the “Old Man of the Mountains” (in Arabic shaik-al-jibal) whose name was Hasan ibu-al-Sabbah, a leader of a fanatical Ismaili Muslim sect. Hashish is the flowering tops and leaves of Indian hemp (medicinal marijuana) smoked, chewed, and eaten for its hallucinogenic effects. However these folks used a more distilled version with more “kick” for the ounce (Troy). The dried resinous exudate of the dried flower tops of the female hemp plant, containing larger amounts of the active whoop-de-do chemicals, and so this group concentrated it alone and ate it (more potent and faster acting through the stomach and intestine walls). Hence, they were called “hashish” eaters.
    Hallucinating marijuana has the effect of lowering a person’s perception of risks in a dangerous situation, part of the hallucinating effect. Thus, the “hashish” eaters became assassins, since they would willingly assassinate somebody with lots of bodyguards from which to a non-hallucinating person there was no hope for the assassin to escape alive after the assassination. Of course they did it anyway to the last munch.
    But it is out of a Westernization of the Arabic word ḥashshāshīn (eaters of hashish) that the word “assassin” was coined. And so to the murderous Persian medicinal marijuana dopers of the 12th century we are indebted to a new and useful term in the English speaking tongue.

  15. Koch Brothers -  June 19, 2011 - 11:31 pm

    Now now, all you candidates stop your bickering. You all work for me and my friends, and no matter what happens in the next election, we’ll be fine because the other guys work for us too. It’s the dumbass public that will suffer, because they were too stupid to stop wasting their time on Dictionary.com and pay attention to real issues that affect them in their everyday lives.

  16. Ron Paul -  June 19, 2011 - 11:29 pm

    People should be able to listen or ignore anyone they want, and we don’t need the government to tell them which. All we need the government for is a diversion so the rich guys can stay rich.

  17. Sarah Palin -  June 19, 2011 - 11:27 pm

    Who cares what he said? I don’t listen to anyone and don’t regret any of it. It’s what being a “Maverick” is all about.

  18. Archon -  June 19, 2011 - 1:03 am

    @ zaraf

    Just because you heard it on television, doesn’t legitimize the meaning. Anyone with a reasonable facility with the language can create a backronym, which is just the subject word, formed from the initial letters of carefully chosen words which give an acceptable meaning. In England, especially in London, there are whole gangs of violently rowdy young men known as Chavs. Newspeople and police were mystified as to where this term came from and many theories were advanced. The most widely accepted was that it was a backronym of Council-Housed And Violent. Turns out it all started in Manchester,where, for some reason, there was a large influx of immigrants from Armenia. The word Chav is simply an Armenian word which translates into English as PUNK. No acronym involved.

  19. memory -  June 18, 2011 - 10:41 pm

    I remember hearing the word “punk” used to mean defective or of poor quality. Also, like autodact7 at at 8:21, we used it to refer to the special stick or piece of smoldering rope used to light a firecracker. These devices would not burn with a proper flame, but would smolder for a long period of time, i.e., burn poorly.

  20. ms zala -  June 18, 2011 - 7:28 pm

    ‘punk’ i would say i hate the sond of the word

  21. MRCAB -  June 18, 2011 - 5:24 pm

    Yes, but what of Punky Brewster?

  22. NotJoeMamma -  June 18, 2011 - 3:23 pm

    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?

    I think it is important to remember that in Shakespeare’s day, young men played the roles of women. This would be an excellent candidate as our language is both living and pliable. I like the other comments, too.

  23. A. Hastings -  June 18, 2011 - 12:18 pm

    Ha! Leave it to Mr. Plymell to leave the same comment about Burroughs that I was going to make! Apparently, PUNK Magazine got its name from Burroughs, and that’s what led to Burroughs explaining his usage of the word (see Please Kill Me: The Uncensored Oral History of Punk).

    Burroughs is also credited with influencing cyberpunk.

  24. Dixiesuzan -  June 18, 2011 - 7:45 am

    Scotie McBoogerballs – I ascertain by your appellation that you and your friends are of like nature. Presumptively, therefore, that as leader of those within your coven you exclude your enemies. Prythee, who might they be?

  25. a -  June 18, 2011 - 7:03 am

    The “punk” in Cyberpunk was referring to the fact the authors in the genre were young upstarts making a drastic break from the established science fiction themes of the day…

  26. zanaf -  June 18, 2011 - 4:49 am

    I heard on television a few years ago that it mean’s Proletarian Urban Nihilistic Kids. I do agree with Hot Word, the new origin of the word probably depends a lot on what Dave Marsh was thinking when he used this word.

  27. papadoc -  June 18, 2011 - 1:10 am

    I don’t think that Shakespeare coined the term assassin. I believe it came from the Middle East and referred to the fact that paid murderers often used hashish prior to committing their nefarious acts.

  28. Archon -  June 17, 2011 - 10:40 pm

    Firecracker lighters and mosquito coils come from the reference to rotten wood, something which would smoulder but not burst into flame. The firecracker lighters were fully named, correctly, “punk sticks,” but verbal shorthand turned them into simply punks. They had a nice aroma to them and modern incense sticks are just punk sticks with fragrance soaked into them. Ancient cannons and muskets prior to matchlocks were set off with them, especially on ships. Despite the flaming torches you’ve seen in movies, burning down a wooden ship was a real hazard to be avoided. The mosquito coils did indeed throw off a lot of smoke and irritated people more than they repelled insects. I believe OFF is the company which did the incense stick trick with them. They added a chemical that the bugs didn’t like and produced a coil of punk with much less smoke. I think they’re still being made and sold.

  29. DR Julie -  June 17, 2011 - 7:39 pm


  30. Mr. Raymond Kenneth Petry -  June 17, 2011 - 4:39 pm

    PUNK, used to light SPARKLERS and PICCOLO PETES etc., by smoldering, in the ’60′s was reputedly dried camel dung, whence, PUNK, referred to a cigarette or anything there-like, or even to the smoker as an extension thereto….

    FUNK, and FUNKY, come from, FUNCTIONAL, in a slang sense of ‘minimally’….

  31. Scotie McBoogerballs -  June 17, 2011 - 4:00 pm

    Im going to start calling my friends “punks.” Meaning “Prostitute!” ;)

  32. charles plymell -  June 17, 2011 - 3:09 pm

    I wrote “punk wood won’t burn” in a poem about stealing firewood from Paul Bley’s (keyboard jazz) woodpile in 70′s thinking it would have the association of worthless or sissy. I first heard it in 50′s as street hipster with ducktail & modified zoot.The squares would sometimes call us punks. I wore Brando black leather jacket then too; the dress survived! Last time Grant Hart (formerly Husker Du) visited, he was wearing one! The Mohawk replaced the ducktail hairstyle, but the street “wildside” connotation lives on in Lou Reed’s song for Candy Darling, and in music groups such as Stooges & The Cramps. Odd that the Dictionary of Etymology does not indicate derivations, but seperate meanings and has funk with second meaning & funk denotes music as well. Charles Plymell

  33. C-H-A-O -  June 17, 2011 - 2:42 pm

    Shakespeare is great in inventing words..he’s the Einstein of Literature. He invented 1700 words and some of those I think are “assassination”, ‘invulnerable”, “accommodation”, and even phrases like “green eyed monster” and “naked truth”.

  34. Emily -  June 17, 2011 - 1:52 pm

    Very interesting lesson for the day!

  35. Bonnie J. Anderson -  June 17, 2011 - 11:54 am

    Anyway- to answer the question posed in article title, the answer, it would seem, is “Nothing”!

  36. Bonnie J. Anderson -  June 17, 2011 - 11:53 am

    I recall as a kid, burning very slim sticks of fragrant wood that were called “punks.” The smoke was very aromatic and sweet-smelling, like incense. Kids bought them at the store, like penny candy.

    I also recall my own evolving use of the term. Initially, it meant someone small, short, scrawny (recall Punky Brewster?). To say a kid was a punk meant he was short and slight for his age. Possible offshoot of the endearment “punkin”?

    For my peers and me, the word didn’t start to mean a trouble maker type until later, after the musical revolution, I believe. And Shakespeare using it to demean women… why am I not surprised! Man must have 100 synonyms for the word “whore.”

  37. elijah wald -  June 17, 2011 - 10:48 am

    The missing link here–and I have no idea how anyone with the slightest interest in this subject missed it–is that at least in the early 20th century US, “punk” meant specifically a boy or young man used by an adult man for sexual purposes. It is easy to see how the meaning of “whore” could evolve into this meaning, and equally easy to see how it could then evolve into a generally insulting term for a ratty, physically unimposing young guy.

  38. Fluffy -  June 17, 2011 - 10:24 am

    SWEET!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! i-i i_i i-i

  39. Schuyler -  June 17, 2011 - 10:09 am

    RE Elend:
    The term “Steampunk” was, of course, coined to refer to the sci-fi subgenre of “the future as it was once imagined,” such as by the writings of Verne and Wells: Victorian look or feel with steam-based or 19th century technology.
    It’s called STEAMpunk to differentiate it from CYBERpunk, the sci-fi subgenre that became prominent in the 1980′s through the writings of Gibson and others: literature featuring cybernetic implants or enhancements, usually in low-life characters, i.e., punks (as we know them).

  40. rousseau -  June 17, 2011 - 10:05 am

    Time will tell, just as well. That actor fella, asston whatzis name, married to Bruce’s wife, punks with a hidden camera. Oui?

  41. Liza with a Z -  June 17, 2011 - 9:54 am

    I thought punk was also in the 1950s with the emergence of Brando, James Dean, and “West Side Story” types….

  42. Annette -  June 17, 2011 - 9:28 am

    We used to burn a coiled material called punk as mosquito repellant. The smoke was profuse and repelled the mosquitoes. You would light the end which slowly burns down the length of the coil.

  43. sixgun -  June 17, 2011 - 8:45 am

    Steampunk is an elaboration on the ‘cyberpunk’ genre of sci-fi where cyberpunk implies a youth/street culture of the future dominated by hi-tech gadgets and hacking. ‘Steampunk’ refers to an ‘alternate’ universe where Victorian technology was never ousted by electronics and the micro-chip – computers rather than hi-tech electronic devices are here more akin to Charles Babbage’s mechanical ‘Difference Engine’. (Look it up!)

  44. charles plymell -  June 17, 2011 - 8:38 am

    I heard the term in the 50′s sometimes used to indicate hipsters w/ducktail haircuts.etc. as sissy. That connotation caught the writer, William Burrough’s attention when in converstation he questoned the connection to new music, saying he had known its use in jails & junky criminal street to connote sexual submission. His lingustic & drug mentor, Herbert Huncke, would have agreed.

  45. John -  June 17, 2011 - 8:29 am

    In the first few decades of the 20th Century, the term “bimbo” actually referred to a male who was doing a soft office job instead of something “manly” which would get him dirty and callused. Later, it would come to be used to refer to a simple-minded young woman, a precursor to the “blonde” jokes of today.

  46. spunklover -  June 17, 2011 - 8:24 am

    good question

  47. autodact7 -  June 17, 2011 - 8:21 am

    Anybody out there remember what we used to ignite (when they weren’t illegal) FIRECRACKERS with, one at a time? It resembled, but smaller, the “cat tails” that grew in some swampy areas in Queens County, NY.
    The more modern lookalike is the familiar incense stick. We just called it a PUNK!

  48. Dixiesuzan -  June 17, 2011 - 8:11 am

    Ali Dogan – I presume you were starting with “Dear Sir” and collapsed in a quasi-coma on your keyboard due to a “punk”. In John R. Bartlett 1877 – Dictionary of Americanisms a “punk” is listed as a New York word for “A punch or blow with the fist”. “To punk” being to actively do a punch or blow with the fist a la New York 1877.

    You might like to know that the formal “Sir” was a title formerly applied to priests and curates generally around Shakespeares time.

    Good day Sir.

  49. Dixiesuzan -  June 17, 2011 - 7:57 am

    As to the word “punk” appearing in Shakespeare, it does appear in All’s Well That Ends Well, but the reference is to a “taffeta punk” rather than a “taffety” version of same. Now “punk” also appears in other Shakespeare plays as noted below:

    All’s Well That Ends Well; Act 2, Scene 2
    (Clown is a servant to the Countess of Rousillon.)
    Clown – “As fit as ten groats is for the hand of an at torney, as your French crown for your taffeta punk,….”

    Merry Wives of Windsor; Act 2, Scene 2
    Pistol – “This punk is one of Cupid s carriers -….”

    Measure for Measure; Act 5, Scene 1
    Lucio – “My lord, she may be a punk ; for many of them are neither maid, widow, nor wife.
    Lucio – “Marrying a punk, my lord, is pressing to death, whipping, and hanging.”

    Observe th general punishment for marrying one in the last reference above.

    Dry tinder was often called “punk-wood” and oft times when going camping one was asked “Did you bring any punk-wood?”

    As to “Punk Rock” I would put the suitable retribution as in the same catagory as marying one, taffeta or otherwise.

  50. zach -  June 17, 2011 - 7:50 am

    steampunk is a variant on cyberpunk, which is in reference to a style of fiction influenced by modern and futuristic technology and the visual aesthetic of punk (or what a computer geek would think punk is like, anyway). steampunk is essentially a futuristic version of the past, where modern technologies are achieved using of-the-time technologies; a genre based on anachronism

  51. Andrew -  June 17, 2011 - 7:30 am

    Steam punk is a type of urban fantasy with steam age technology. This a play on the term cyberpunk which is a high technology dark urban fantasy (think Blade Runner or Max Headroom) . “Cyberpunk” was the title of a book by Bruce Bethke that was a forerunner in this genre. The book title refers to a Cyberneticly enhanced punk. In the setting of the book there is a fictional subculture of the future where punks gain cybernetic enhancement, commit crime, raise hell.

  52. Joshua -  June 17, 2011 - 5:27 am

    Keep it up! And put more effort. I love that…

  53. Elend -  June 17, 2011 - 5:21 am

    How does the word “punk” relate to a term such as Steampunk, where “punk” seems to mean something nearer to “technology level”? Did someone think it was “something worthless” and the name stuck, or is it from a different etymology than “punk rock”?

  54. louis paiz -  June 17, 2011 - 4:38 am

    taffety punk,in spanish they have a taffetan material aroud 1950
    used in the confection of over puffed dresses used for shows or weadings.

  55. ms zala -  June 17, 2011 - 3:38 am

    boy u got my heartbeat runnin away
    beating like a drum and its comin ur way
    cant u hear that boom, bloom, boom, boom,bloom,boom,bass
    he got that super bass
    got that boom,bloom,boom,boom,bloom,boom, bass
    yeah thats that super bass

  56. Ali Dogan -  June 17, 2011 - 3:20 am

    Dear sr

  57. ryan -  June 17, 2011 - 1:29 am



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