“This is the true story of how
conservatives punk’d a nation,” reads the back of
Thomas Frank’s book “What’s the Matter With
Kansas?” Tongue-in-cheek as its usage may often be,
punk’d has escaped the bounds of MTV and entered our
collective vocabulary.

Dan Mullkoff

This current usage as a verb indicates that a person has been
deceived, often by jack-assed trickery from the likes of Ashton
Kutcher. The victim may not realize a punk’ng is amidst until
afterwards, when the punk’r (as distinguished from a punker,
‘a fan of punk music’) clues him in with an
announcement of the catchphrase “you got
punk’d!”

The word punk has a long history with dozens of meanings,
usually as a noun or an adjective. English speakers have used punk
as a verb in a few ways: to punk meaning ‘procure customers
for a prostitute’ (derived from the first meaning of punk,
‘a prostitute’) in 16th century England, and to punk
out, meaning ‘back out,’ in the U.S. beginning in the
1920s.

But Mr. Kutcher’s usage as a transitive verb probably
derives from the American-based adjectival meaning, ‘devoid
of worth or sense; poor in quality,’ dating to the late 19th
century. This meaning also provided the basis for the term punk
rock, coined by Creem Magazine’s Dave Marsh in 1971 while
referencing Rudy Martinez (a.k.a. Question Mark) of the band ? and
the Mysterians, of “96 Tears” fame (and whom I highly
recommend).

In saying the passive phrase, “You got
punk’d!” the punk’r places himself in the role of
an outside observer in order to emphasize that the person, in
short, got punk’d. Using the passive construction instead of
the active “I punk’d you!” puts focus on the
victim, and suggests that third-party observers would have the same
reaction to the punk’ng.

I should note that passive call-outs are nothing unique to
punk’rs. Unwitting people can get dissed, schooled, burned,
ho’d, shown up, etc. And, if the conditions are just right,
and the stars so aligned, they just might find themselves on the
receiving end of a serve.

As the two utterances of the titular line in the film “You
Got Served” exemplify, getting served suggests being
demonstrably outperformed at a given task. To serve has meant
‘to play a trick on someone’ since the late 16th
century, though in this sense it has most often been used as to
serve a turn, and is rarely heard nowadays. This meaning better
fits the connotations of getting punk’d, as trickery is a key
component.

A closer fit and a possible origin for the current sense of
getting served is an Australian slang verb phrase dating to the
1970s: to give a serve, meaning ‘to reprimand
sharply.’

Speakers today usually use punk’d and served with the verb
“to get” instead of the “to be” more common
to formal passive constructions (e.g., “you were
punk’d!”). According to English Prof. Anne Curzan,
“Passives such as ‘you got served’ are often
viewed as colloquial and perhaps too informal or somehow improper
(even though history shows that Jane Austen and Charles Dickens
used them). It’s possible, though, that passives can mean
something slightly different from passives with ‘to
be,’ which is why they can be useful: They can emphasize
process, they can be emphatic, or they can suggest that the subject
is in part responsible for what happened (‘she got
fired’).” In the case of served, changing the verb
alters the meaning, from the traditional definition ‘have a
service done for’ to the more slang ‘be
outperformed.’ Had the British department-store comedy
“Are You Being Served?” routinely featured plot-lines
involving, say, Mr. Humphries out-break-dancing Capt. Peacock,
perhaps “Are You Getting Served?” would have been an
appropriate title.

Unlike a punk’ng, which is decided by the punk’r,
exactly who got served can be decided by a third party, such as the
large audiences at the aforementioned film’s climatic
dance-offs. Whereas the use of the passive voice in “you got
punk’d!” merely seeks to place the punk’r in the
role of an outside observer, the passive voice of “you got
served!” can reiterate the decision of a present third party,
insuring that the victim understands he got served.

Another distinction involves the element of surprise: a serve
victim realizes he is a candidate to get served throughout the
battle; a person who has been punk’d does not see it coming
until the startling moment of revelation. There is also a level of
seriousness unique to a serve.

There may be great animosity between the one getting served and
the one doing the serving. Following a punk’ng, on the other
hand, the punk’r and the victim are most often on good terms,
realizing it was all in good fun. When local resident Will
Travers’s television failed to work one day, he perhaps
inadvertently highlighted the difference between the two terms.
Fearing the damage was permanent, he lamented, “Man, I hope
we got punk’d, but I’m pretty sure we got
served.”

 

Of note: In my Sept. 23 “Suffixgate” column, I
defined –crat as ‘a supporter of a specified form of
government.’ Thanks to Rackham student Aristotelis
Babajimopoulos for clarifying the relevant ancient Greek root word,
which is kratein, ‘to be strong; to rule.’ The English
words democracy and democrat, as well as similar constructions,
were derived from French. The French word démocrate
(‘democrat’) was back-formed from the French
démocratie (‘democracy’), which was derived from
ancient Greek. So, by way of the French, we use the suffix
–crat to complement the Greek-based suffix –cracy.

 

Dan also spends a lot of time wondering what “word
up” actually means. If you have any ideas, feel free to
e-mail him at
“mailto:mullkoff@umich.edu”>mullkoff@umich.edu.

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