This excerpt from Everybody Loves Our Town: An Oral History of Grunge addresses the enduring mystery of who coined the term grunge:
JACK ENDINO (producer; Skin Yard guitarist) None of us is entirely sure about who used the word [grunge] first. I saw it in a Lester Bangs record review in Rolling Stone in the ’70s. Mark Arm had used the word in the early ’80s.
MAIRE MASCO (Desperate Times zine cofounder) Desperate Times had letters to the editor, and Mark Arm wrote this letter complaining about his own band, Mr. Epp and the Calculations, being “pure grunge.” Before that, the word had been grungy, an adjective. Mark basically turned it into a noun.
MAIRE MASCO I actually remember when we got his letter, I said to Daina Darzin, the editor, “I don’t think grunge is a word.” And she said, “It doesn’t matter, it sounds cool.”
MARK ARM (né Mark McLaughlin; Mudhoney singer/guitarist; Green River singer; Mr. Epp and the Calculations guitarist/singer) Am I the person responsible for coining the word grunge? I don’t think so. In 1981, I wrote a fanzine a fake letter from the perspective of a disgruntled person who happened to stumble upon my shitty band at the time, Mr. Epp. It was fake hate mail. You know, this publicity stuff is very tricky!
The word grunge was tossed around a little bit here and there well before I ever used it. [Mudhoney’s] Steve Turner picked up this ’70s reissue of a Rock ’n’ Roll Trio album, and the liner notes talk about Paul Burlison’s “grungy guitar sound.” That was written in the ’70s about a ’50s guitar player.
Grunge was an adjective; it was never meant to be a noun. If I was using it, it was never meant to coin a movement, it was just to describe raw rock and roll. Then that term got applied to major-label bands putting out slick-sounding records. It’s an ill fit.
(Scan of Desperate Times July 22, 1981 letters section courtesy of Maire Masco.)