One of the newest media outlets in the US has a very old name: Puck.
The digital publication, which launched in September, is owned and operated by a group of veteran New York journalists (Julia Ioffe, Barathunde Thurston, Joe Kelly, Matt Belloni, and others) and promotes itself as “a new media company dedicated to the power corridors of our culture: Wall Street, Washington, Silicon Valley, and Hollywood” and as “a platform for smart, engaging (and, yes, occasionally dishy) journalism.” Its beats are Wall Street, Hollywood, Silicon Valley, and Washington.
A pre-launch announcement from Puck.news.
You can read one article without paying, but if you want more dish you’ll have to dish out some cash. “A $100 annual fee entitles subscribers to personal emails from the authors and all the newsletters, features and breaking news; moving up to $250 brings all that plus access to conference calls with the authors, Q&As with the staff and invitations to events,” Bloomberg’s Lucas Shaw reported on September 13.
What about the name? From the August 5, 2021, email announcement: “The name is a nod to Shakespeare—as well as to the building where humor magazine Spy was born.”
More about Spy in a bit. First, though, here’s the Puck Building.
The Puck Building at 309 Lafayette Street, New York. The building was constructed between 1883 and 1893 and originally served as a printing facility; statues of the mythological Puck were added after it became home to the editorial offices of Puck in 1887. The building has had a colorful and even tragic history; its current owner is Kushner Properties, owned by convicted felon Charles Kushner and his son Jared, son-in-law of TFG. Read more about the Puck Building.
The original Puck was the first successful humor magazine in the US. It was founded in St. Louis in 1871 as a German-language weekly. An English-language version was launched in 1877, and was successful enough that the German version was dropped and the editorial offices were moved to New York, where publication continued until 1918. The magazine’s last publisher (1916–1918) was William Randolph Hearst.
The Thanksgiving 1897 issue of Puck. The cover illustration requires some explanation, and here’s Chris Holmes of the Gray Flannel Suit blog to do the job: “Sitting at the table, ready to carve up a turkey called “Patronage of Greater NY” is Richard Croker, one of the leaders of the infamous Tammany Hall. The dog is Republican heavy hitter and U.S. Senator Thomas C. Platt. Don’t ask me to interpret the meaning in this drawing.”
The satirical magazine Spy was a Puck Building tenant between 1987 and 1989. Founded by Kurt Andersen and Graydon Carter, the magazine had an impact far beyond its short lifespan (it ceased publication in 1998). Among other things, its editors coined the epithet “short-fingered vulgarian” to describe real-estate developer and future game-show host Donald J. Trump.
So where does puck come from? It’s a German surname, but not the surname of any of the men responsible for the original Puck magazine. Its origins are murky; it may be related to Germanic words meaning “hit” or “strike”—yes, that’s probably where we get fuck—or to puch, which means “stubbornness” or “defiance,” and which, who knows, may be connected to the hit/strike sense.
Chef-restaurateur Wolfgang Puck (b. 1949, Austria) on the cover of his 2002 cookbook Live, Love, Eat!
The flat disc used in ice hockey is related to the “hit/strike” sense of puck. I was surprised to learn that it’s a relatively recent usage: OED’s oldest citation is from 1886.
The new Puck media company can trace its name far beyond the 19th century. Puck is the name of the mischievous sprite in Shakespeare’s Midsummer Night’s Dream (1595 or 1596) who replaces Bottom’s head with the head of an ass and who says “Lord, what fools these mortals be!”
Fifteen-year-old Mickey Rooney as Puck in A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1935).
But lower-case puck is even older than that. Speakers of Old English used puck to mean an evil or malicious spirit (there are cognates in various Scandinavian languages). The word didn’t become an adjective, puckish—“mischievous” or “capricious”—until the late 19th century. The OED’s earliest citation for puckish is from John Richard Green’s 1874 A Short History of the English People: “Her delight…broke out in a thousand puckish freaks,” a sentence that strikes us as odd because we no longer use freak to mean “a sudden causeless change or turn of the mind.”