wonk

This is the sound of someone being knocked on the head with a stack of accumulated knowledge, knocked so hard that they are dizzied and off-kilter. It is also the sound of the person doing the knocking, who is probably pretending that the assault is really banging on the door to greater knowledge – most of all, though, they want (wonk?) you to know that they know. They know this stuff backwards.

Know, backwards: wonk.

No.

No, that is not where wonk comes from, or at least there is no evidence for it beyond the form coincidence (which in itself is never enough). But I wouldn’t be surprised if it has played a little role in the semantic evolution of the word.

So where does this word come from? I know you’re looking at me to find out, since I’m a word wonk. Well, I will wonk this word. I will wonk you with this word. I will wonk out on this word. Actually, the use of wonk as a verb is not well established (the only definition I’ve seen that includes it as a verb form is in Urban Dictionary), so why don’t I do all three.

Wonk has been around for a few decades, but it really hit its stride in the 1990s, when Bill Clinton came into office with a staff of smart nerdy guys, who came to be called policy wonks – still by a long chalk the most common collocation for wonk.

Before that, starting by 1962 (when it appeared in Sports Illustrated), wonk was a term for an overly studious person. Sort of like a nerd or a geek (I’ll leave the shades of meaning between those two for another time). About as awkward sounding as dork. Somehow the exact opposite of punk. Who’da thunk it? Ha. The wonk woulda. He woulda dropped his books on the table, “thunk,” and there you’d have it. (I say he because wonks have long been stereotypically male. A counterexample to that – but the suffix proves the default – is the snarky smart policy-and-politics blogger who goes by Wonkette.)

So where did that wonk come from? The data is (are) inconclusive. Could be from British naval slang for ‘midshipman’. But yyyeeaaahhhh probablynot. Could be from wonky meaning ‘unstable, off-kilter, unreliable’, but how it got from that to a swot is unclear. Or it could be from wanker. Which strikes me as semantically most plausible, what with wanker meaning ‘onanist’ (if you do not know either of those words, well, um, Google). But phonetically it’s a bit off because the vowel shift is unaccounted for. It could be ablaut: wank, wonk, wunk – I wank today, I wonk yesterday, I have wunk. But there is no wunk. Well, except for this Urban Dictionary definition, which was probably made up by the submitter and is clearly derived from wink.

Urban Dictionary is actually not a bad source for wonk, as it happens. Some wonk posted a summary of the Oxford English Dictionary data for a definition; true to Urban Dictionary form, it’s been voted into fourth place, right behind the definition “The sound a goose makes when hit over the head with a shovel.” Wonks are still ostracized. Better to give a nice clear definition without too much tl;dr, like the top-voted definition:

(1) Noun – An expert in a field, typically someone who is fairly young and very intelligent.

(2) Verb – To use ones mastery of a specific subject to perform some type of work.

Oh – there is one more meaning of wonk, even older than the others. No one seems to think it’s related. It means ‘dog’ or, more specifically, ‘yellow dog’, in particular ‘Chinese yellow dog’, and was often used in the term wonk dog. It appears to come from Mandarin huang gou (which sounds rather like “whonk-o”) and was used only in contexts related to China. The OED quotations for it point up its assonance with a racist term for Chinese people that also ended in nk. No one seems to use wonk dog now. It has become unknown. Which is the opposite of wonked.

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