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Policy wonk

Q From Jason Rothstein: Any idea about the origin of the word wonk, most commonly used today in policy wonk?

A How many explanations would you like? I’ve turned up at least a dozen, some of them quite ingenious.

The boring facts first. Wonk is a disparaging term for a studious or hard-working person. It is first recorded, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, in an article in Sports Illustrated in December 1962, though Fred Shapiro of Yale Law School has turned up an example from Time in 1954. It gained a wider exposure, for example, through being used in Erich Segal’s Love Story of 1970: “Who could Jenny be talking to that was worth appropriating moments set aside for a date with me? Some musical wonk?”.

The clue to its origin may be in that article in Sports Illustrated, in which it is explained that in Harvard slang there was a tripartite classification of students into wonks, preppies, and jocks. It seems that all three terms were around in the 1950s (jock possibly even earlier) and that they have moved into mainstream use in the decades since. The word was presumably taken to Washington by Harvard graduates and formed the basis for the modern term policy wonk, which — as you say — is where most of us encounter it. There it acquired the meaning of “a policy expert, especially one who takes an obsessive interest in minor details of policy”, with a disparaging implication of someone immersed in detail and out of touch with the real world.

Now to the 64-dollar question: where did the word come from? This is where we step on to shaky ground. Some have suggested that it may be know written backwards or an acronym for WithOut Normal Knowledge. More seriously, others find an origin in the British word wonky, meaning something or someone unsteady or unsound; even if a connection is found, which seems unlikely, it just takes the problem back a few decades, since we don’t know where wonky comes from either. A source in wank, for masturbation, has also been suggested. A popular derivation links it with Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, but though Roald Dahl’s original story Charlie and the Chocolate Factory dates from 1964, the name Wonka was really only popularised by the film; and wonk, as we’ve seen, is anyway older than either.

Others suggest links with various other known senses of wonk: as 1920s slang for a useless naval cadet or midshipman; as the name for a Chinese dog; a disparaging Australian aboriginal word for a white man (much like the black American honky, with which it is not connected); or 1940s Australian slang for an effeminate or homosexual man (also known in that period as a gussie or a spurge). None of these have solid evidence in their favour, and only the naval slang sounds even moderately plausible. We really don’t know.

Page created 17 Apr. 1999

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Last modified: 17 April 1999.