Decopunk and other quasicompositional compounds

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The Wikipedia article on cyberpunk derivatives lists, among others, biopunk, nanopunk, steampunk, dieselpunk, decopunk, and atompunk. These are all subgenres of speculative fiction, unlike glam-punk, electropunk, cowpunk, etc., which are subgenres of punk rock (music).

And these words are also prime examples of the quasiregularity of  morphological (and sometimes phrasal) composition.

After a history of dust and prostitution, punk became a derogatory term glossed as "A juvenile delinquent; a young, petty criminal or trouble-maker; a hoodlum; a hooligan". It was then adopted as a modifier in punk rock, a 1970s musical genre that embraced punk's young lower-class outsider associations. The genre of cyberpunk fiction came along in the 1980s, focused on "marginalized, alienated loners who lived on the edge of society in generally dystopic futures where daily life was impacted by […] an ubiquitous datasphere of computerized information".

So the compound cyberpunk inherits a relationship to information technology from cyber-, and a focus on alienated outsiders from punk, and the idea of genre-naming by analogy to punk rock. And therefore the meaning of cyberpunk is to some extent built on the meaning of its morphological parts. But there's an additional and unpredictable historico-semantic overlay — in some nearly-parallel universe, cyberpunk might mean "gamer" or "contract programmer" or "tech bro" or whatever.

And then the subgenre analogies took off: steampunk, a retro-futuristic genre that blends advanced AI-like functions with "technology and aesthetic designs inspired by 19th-century industrial steam-powered machinery"; Dieselpunk, which "combines the aesthetics of the diesel-based technology of the interwar period through to the 1950s with retro-futuristic technology and postmodern sensibilities"; Decopunk, a "subset of Dieselpunk, centered around the art deco and Streamline Moderne art styles, and based around the period between the 1920s and 1950s"; and so on.

It's easy to imagine other X-punk analogies — but harder to find plausible examples that haven't already been used, or at least discussed somewhere, like flintpunk, bronzepunk, sailpunk, quillpunk, …

Complex lexical items generally have analogical historico-semantic accretions similar to those in the X-punk domain. This includes phrases like red tide, solar energy, or historical fiction,  as well as compounds like jumpsuitski lift, or break room. In the other direction, proper names are far from being semantically arbitrary in practice — to quote from a Decopunk work, Catherynne Valente's Radiance:

Names aren’t loners, they’re connected, even in real life. You name your kids for someone dead or what you hope they will become or what you wish you were and your parents did the same to you and that big, glittering net of names tells the story of the whole world. Names are load-bearing struts.

Some past posts on quasiregularity — which is a problem for most traditional approaches to linguistic theory, whether with respect to form (e.g. in morphology and phonology) or meaning (as here):

"The theology of phonology", 1/2/2004
"The curious case of quasiregularity", 1/15/2004
"Who let the 'n' in?", 1/22/2006
"The evolutionary psychology of irregular morphology", 4/10/2008
"Quasiregularity and its discontents", 9/13/2104


  1. Frédéric Grosshans said,

    September 2, 2018 @ 6:11 am

    To add to your enumeration, there is also formicapunk, described by a French comics writer born in the 1970s here

  2. J.W. Brewer said,

    September 2, 2018 @ 8:31 am

    Now I can't confirm it via googling, but I have a hopefully-reasonably-accurate memory of some musical figure (I think Paul Westerberg of the Replacements, but could have been someone else) explaining to an interviewer back in the '80's that his band weren't punks, they were punk rockers. At the time it seemed like he was trying to communicate a distinction that seemed important to him but was so subtle as to be hard to explicate the real-world consequences of. Maybe with some hindsight we can speculate that the point he was trying to make was something like "we are rock musicians who play in a style that can plausibly be fitted into this specific genre of rock music, but we have no interest in being tagged with a more highly-abstracted concept of 'punkness' that could be applied to a subgenre of speculative fiction as easily as it could be to a style of music."

  3. Jerry Friedman said,

    September 2, 2018 @ 8:49 am

    J. W. Brewer: Could it have been "We're not hoodlums, we're not insolent boys, we're musicians who play punk rock"?

    Back then I occasionally heard "punker" for a fan of punk rock who wore the associated clothes. I took that as a deliberate attempt to avoid an insult. "The punk I scorn."

  4. Ray said,

    September 2, 2018 @ 10:18 am

    I really like this idea of merging an art historical term with punk… but I think the rhythm plays a part in deciding which order, and I think I mostly like hearing the punk first. so: punk deco, punk moderne, punk nouveau, punk pop, punk surreal, punk romantic…

    but then I also like post-punk, dadapunk, fauvepunk, indiepunk…

  5. Bruce Rusk said,

    September 2, 2018 @ 10:55 am

    Another hypothetical spinoff would be streampunk, based on the same era as steampunk but more invested in the aesthetic of Victorian fly fishing.

  6. J.W. Brewer said,

    September 2, 2018 @ 1:32 pm

    @Jerry Friedman, that's a plausible gloss, which makes it even more interesting that it's totally wrong. If it was Westerberg speaking (and if it wasn't, my memory of the whole thing may be too unreliable to mean anything) he and his bandmates were classic insolent-hoodlum punks in the pre-musical-genre-name sense. They liked to boast at one point that the four of them had a total of zero high school diplomas and I believe zero valid driver's licenses. They disdained professionalism in a way that at the time seemed like an admirable refusal to "sell out" motivated by a sense of artistic integrity but which in hindsight may have been more a subconscious propensity for self-sabotage arising from traumatic and dysfunctional childhoods. What he would have been trying to distinguish himself and his bandmates from is the sort of self-conscious punkness that had become common in Manhattan or London among those from more upscale family backgrounds who'd gone off to the sort of college where they became fascinated with avant-garde performance art and added words like "transgressive" and "critique" to their active lexicons. And that's the sort of punkness that is imho morphologically productive of cyberpunk/steampunk et al.

  7. James said,

    September 2, 2018 @ 2:51 pm

    PW: We were heavily influenced by that. We weren’t punks. We tried to be, but we realized that…It’s the attitude. We’re as rooted in that as the Beatles were in Chuck Berry. We can’t shake it if we tried. I mean, we were punks. We weren’t punk rockers, but we’ll never be …

    TS: We’re assholes.

    PW …anything slick or showbizzy. And that’s what punk rock was. It was amateurism, for yourself, for fun. That’s what we were. And then we heard punk rock and said “Yeah, this is cool. This is easy.”

  8. cameron said,

    September 2, 2018 @ 4:10 pm

    I think perhaps what Westerberg, if it was he, might have been getting at in that "we're punk rockers, not punks" quote was that he did not accept the notion that punk was something other than rock. Back in the late 70s and early 80s, many American rock fans professed to hate punk, even though they'd likely never heard it. And many considered it to be something other than rock & roll. Witness for example the classic photo featured on the cover of the Oblivians's album Popular Favorites:

    The "we're punk rockers" quote would have been to emphasize a view of rock that was inclusive of punk, not one that rejected punk as something aline.

  9. AG said,

    September 2, 2018 @ 8:54 pm

    There was a thing in mid-90s hip hop where people drew a distinction between "hip hop" and "rap", with the former being authentic and the latter being fake. It seemed like a very hard distinction to keep clear.

  10. Pixel Scroll 9/2/18 Elvish Has Left The Building | File 770 said,

    September 2, 2018 @ 9:08 pm

    […] (1) DECOPUNK CITATION. Language Log quotes Cat Valente today in “Decopunk and other quasicompositional compounds”. […]

  11. Chas Belov said,

    September 3, 2018 @ 1:25 am

    I've written solarpunk, in which technology is dependent on solar power.

  12. Andreas Johansson said,

    September 3, 2018 @ 5:45 am

    TVTropes uses Punk Punk as a catchall for the various -punk genres, where the morpheme apparently does double duty as a generic placeholder à la "splat" .

  13. Jlya said,

    September 4, 2018 @ 9:34 am

    I am currently reading "Hard Revolution: A Novel" By George P. Pelecanos
    It was new to me to see "punk" used to refer, in derogatory way, to homosexuality —

  14. Rodger C said,

    September 5, 2018 @ 7:29 am

    @Jlya: This is, I think, the original meaning, certainly the first one I (an American of a certain age) was ever aware of. Maybe it's become obsolete, and a good thing too.

  15. J.W. Brewer said,

    September 5, 2018 @ 8:35 am

    @Rodger C.: That sense (first attested in the 19th century) seems likely to be an extension of an earlier, now-obsolete sense of "punk" as "(female) prostitute," which you can find all the way back to Shakespeare. The only 20th century writer I'm personally aware of who used "punk" in that sense was Yeats, and I don't know if (due to generation or region) it was non-obsolete in his personal lexicon or if he was just looking for a lazy rhyme for "drunk."

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