Monday, 22 February 2010

You Kids With Your Music

Since the beginning of America as we know it, the development of the culture spawning from one root has split distinctly in at least two very noticeable ways. The people who live on either side of the Atlantic pond have been subject to three hundred years of independence from each other, and that makes for two very different ways of living. The same goes for language. Everyone knows the basic spelling differences between Brits and Yanks, but it goes deeper than that. Sometimes, words can come to have completely different meanings from each other. Here's today's example...


Now, I'm assuming that the majority of people who get pestered into reading this are British, which will have an effect on how you go about interpreting "punk". No doubt Johnny Rotten comes to mind, along with leather jackets, mohawks and nose rings. For the average British reader, "punk" will forever be associated with the 70s music movement. To find out where this comes from, and how it differs in America, let's take a look at a different meaning.

Have you ever heard of "punk wood"? No, it's not some strange folk-punk acoustic crossover, no matter how awesome that would be. It actually refers to rotten wood that's good for nothing but being chopped down. Keen lumberjacks as they are, this means the word mostly belongs in the US, but it does get some use over here. What it shows us, though, is another root. "Punk" as used in "punk wood" is an adjective meaning rotten or worthless. This use appeared on its own at the same time. Owing to the nature of punk music, the connection with rottenness and laziness probably isn't a coincidence.

But "punk", although the music was present, came to have other meanings in America. This talk of worthlessness and devaluing is all very well, but that's not the only meaning "punk" had before The Clash. Way back when, and we're talking 16th century here, a "punk" could be used to mean a prostitute. Slightly different to the use we have today, but wait, because it gets even worse...

In America, there's a rather large and open tramp society. Within any community, you're bound to get different meanings for words. It seems here that it's come from the least reputable of those given above. A "punk" in this respect is a young boy who follows an older tramp, often by force, for sexual favours. I'm pretty sure there aren't many punk rockers who want anything to do with that sort of punk.

Disgusting as it may be, this isn't the only insulting use of "punk" found mostly in America. Alongside this meaning, there's evidence of "punk" used as a synonym for a gay man, probably dating from back when people were deluded in the belief that homosexuality is a lesser state of being. "Punk" is also used to describe cowards and weaklings. It's a far cry from anything The Sex Pistols would see themselves as, but they're in use nonetheless.

There we have it, readers. You may have had a clear idea of what a "punk" was in your mind, and I hope I've thoroughly mixed that up. It's interesting to see how an initial meaning of worthlessness or disgust can build such different meanings over time, as it shows that language changes according to the people who use it. If you live in a culture where you want to describe your music as dirty, you use a different word to someone else. Maybe language is "punk" to a certain extent, but that would depend on whether you come from York or New York.


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