Several derivations of the word punk can be found. The word occurs in Shakespeare to describe a woman of doubtful virtue. Dr Johnson, citing the Bard, defined a punk as ‘a whore, a common prostitute, a strumpet’ while in later street argot it meant yob or hoodlum. But the OED has another definition for punk—‘rotten wood, fungus growing on wood’ or ‘worthless stuff, rubbish’. Recently, I found the OED definition confirmed in a scarce recipe book of circa 1809, and online this was re-affirmed by a modern American naturalist, who called the bracket fungus piptoporus betulinus, ‘white punk’.
This fungus, which is known in the UK as ‘razorstrop fungus’, can hardly be described as 'worthless'. In fact, ‘white punk’ is very valuable if you wish to make a fire but have no cigarette lighter or matches on you, but perhaps do have a magnifying glass, two twigs to rub together or a piece of flint.
Punk is a polypore that grows mainly on silver birches and which, when dried, and cut into strips, makes handy tinder. But don’t take my word for it. Read the wise words of Anon from The Family Receipt Book ( London ca.1809).
On the continent, every traveller, sportsman, &c, carries constantly this tinder about him; which is conveniently portable, and resembles a piece of very thick tanned leather, of an elastic substance, and a sort of velvet surface on the upper part. It is in fact, a large fungus, commonly called punk, which grows at the roots of old trees, where it spreads to a considerable size. This substance is dressed, hammered, and…being dried, forms the true German tinder at all times ready for use, and far less liable to become damp than English tinder.
According to this account, Germans usually use a flint to light the punk, which they carried everywhere with them in a pouch. Once lit, the punk would be stuck directly into a tobacco pipe or be held against a ‘match’ (that is, a spill ). The writer argues that if punk was as popular in England as it was in Germany, a whole new source of wealth might be established.
Many poor persons might be employed in collecting the punk, which is now suffered to rot without utility…it might prove the means of greatly assisting the manufacture of paper…
So, punk has, in all likelihood, a German derivation, and my guess is that our American naturalist may live, or have grown up in, the mid West, which was widely settled by German-speaking immigrants from the early nineteenth century. And as John Lydon called himself Johnny Rotten, could he have read somewhere that punk also meant rotten wood ? [R.H.]