In a recent op-ed article Garrison Keillor wrote that one of the Presidential candidates (feel free to guess which one) is: “…the class hood, the bully and braggart, the guy revving his pink Chevy to make the pipes rumble…the C-minus guy who sat behind you in history and poked you with his pencil and smirked when you asked him to stop…the first punk candidate to get this close to the White House.”
I do not recall when we have had a prominent politician who might credibly be called a “punk.” What does that mean?
The most prevalent current definition of punk is “worthless person.” But it has many other applications, from rock music to clothing, hairstyles, cosmetics, jewelry, and body modifications. The word has a long and sordid etymological history.
In its first incarnation, in the late sixteenth century, a punk was a female prostitute. Shakespeare uses the word in three of his plays, including Measure for Measure, in which Duke
Vincentio asks Mariana if she is a maid, a wife, or a widow, and she says no to all three. Lucio intervenes: "She may be a punk, for many of them are neither maid, widow, nor wife." Also in All's Well That Ends Well, the Clown tells the Countess of Roussillon that his answer to one of her questions is "As fit as ten groats is for the hand of an attorney, as fit as your French crown for your taffety punk." ("French crown" refers not only to the King of France and his bald pate, but also to a symptom of syphilis.)
The word panjandrums don’t know the origin of this meaning of punk, but other definitions soon derived from it: “nonsense, foolishness,” “young, inexperienced person, novice,” “obnoxious child,” “petty gangster, hoodlum, ruffian,” “young homosexual partner, especially among hoboes or in prison.” By the 1920s punk was generally established as meaning “good-for-nothing.”
(From an entirely different etymological stream, beginning with Delaware Algonquian ponk, meaning “dust, powder, ashes,” came the definition of punk as “rotten wood used for tinder.”)
So if you haven’t guessed which candidate the word punk was applied to, here’s a hint: it is the candidate who, in Keillor’s words, is “obsessed with marble walls and gold-plated doorknobs, who has the sensibility of a giant sea tortoise.”
And no, he’s not referring to the Bard of Buffalo Bayou. He has the sensibility of laughing hyena—and the eloquence of an earthworm.
When Jefferson and Adams sparred,
The insults flew with no holds barred.
To help their Presidential aims,
They called each other awful names,
“Coward, hypocrite, and libertine,
Weakling, fool”—oh, they were mean!
“Criminal, tyrant, atheist.”
But there is one slur that they missed.
Despite their penchant for hyperbole
And all the potshots they took verbally,
Neither of them would have thunk
A White House hopeful was a punk.