What’s in a Name?

1920s pilot
A 1920s pilot

Many people express confusion when I tell them that I’m a dieselpunk. I suspect they imagine someone with spiked hair, piercings, tattoos and a leather jacket because of the ‘punk’ suffix in the word. Therefore, I can understand their confusion seeing me wearing a three-piece suit and a fedora.

Usually my explanation about the discrepancy between what they expect and what they see is some variation of, “Dieselpunk isn’t the same as ‘Punk’. It’s a subculture and style that combines the zeitgeist of the 1920s through 40s with postmodern sensibilities from a countercultural viewpoint.” Depending on whom I’m talking to, and considering the state of the education system in the United States, I might substitute the word ‘zeitgeist‘ for the less accurate words of ‘knowledge’ or ‘spirit’.

Occasionally some individuals want more. They want to know the meaning of the word ‘dieselpunk’ and more about the genre-punk itself. Thankfully, the dieselpunk community has debated this matter over the years. Earlier this year, Tome Wilson of Dieselpunks and I had a several discussions with the goal of taking the ideas by the community and developing the best explanation of dieselpunk possible using just a few paragraphs.

Before I go further, I need to provide a disclaimer. When all is said and done, after we’ve analyzed the daylight out the genre and word, dieselpunk is ultimately one thing. Dieselpunk is fun. The day we lose sight of this truth is the day dieselpunk dies.

With that being said, I can now provide the results of our discussion.

The diesel- in the prefix of dieselpunk is a metaphor for the zeitgeist of 1920s-40s.  The rise of Modernity as a wide scale cultural element dominated this zeitgeist. The word ‘decodence’ (a portmanteau of ‘deco’ and ‘decadence’) describes the general feeling of the zeitgeist of that era found within dieselpunk.

The -punk suffix in dieselpunk is a postmodern phenomenon with an emphasis on the poststructuralist aspect that, rather than a metanarrative, involves a first-person narrative. The individual reconstructs or reimagines the source material and consciously intends to blend this inspiration with a contemporary idea or style. In addition, the -punk suffix reflects a countercultural attitude of dissatisfaction with contemporary society and displays that dissatisfaction in the way the person celebrates dieselpunk individually and within the community.

Dieselpunk by its nature therefore involves a dialectical tension between the diesel- prefix and the –punk suffix. The diesel- prefix provides a set of parameters and the element of Modernity while the –punk suffix infuses it with a postmodern nature of the individual narrative resulting in a subclass of genre-punk that is highly varied in its various manifestations.

Class is over. Now go out and have fun.


  1. I like the interpretation of the “punk” in dieselpunk, or steampunk for that matter, as an “attitude of dissatisfaction with contemporary society.” That is, after all, why we like these genres: they give us a past or a future or a combination of both that promises us something our present times lack — adventure, wonder, optimism about the future.

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