I have to confess to being a little confused by the result of my attempts to research the word wonk. I’ve heard the word used a lot lately, so decided to make it my subject for today’s posting.
The dictionaries didn’t prove to be a clarifier for me. In fact, if anything they only added to my dilemma. Perhaps the most confusing definition came from the Slang Dictionary:
an earnest student. (Collegiate.) : Yes, you could call Martin a wonk. In fact, he’s the classic wonk.*
If I were to live with that definition I would consider millions of students at all levels of academia to be wonks simply because they took their studies seriously. That includes microbiology, literature, the fine arts, sports, or even such pursuits as mixology and body art. If, according to the Slang Dictionary, someone is intent upon studying and learning all that they can about a specific subject, they are a wonkAnother source claims that the term originated during the Clinton Administration:
“overly studious person,” 1954, Amer.Eng. student slang, popularized 1993 during Clinton administration in U.S.; perhaps a shortening of Brit. slang wonky “shaky, unreliable” (1919), which perhaps is from Ger. wankel- or from from surviving dialectal words based on O.E. wancol “shaky, tottering” **
Clinton has been blamed for almost everything, so I suppose it’s not surprising to learn that this obscure word is a product of his administration. But it is helpful that this definition adds the word “overly” which begins to give us a clue that the word wonk has to do with excessiveness. I am confused by its supposedly English or German (take your pick) meanings which imply something tentative or unsafe about wonks. They are, after all, “shaky, tottering” according to this source. That’s a point that doesn’t seem to fit. If anything, my growing understanding of the word implies that a person learns as much as possible about a subject and applies it. That doesn’t sound tentative to me.
But the most interesting piece of information came from the online dictionary, Dictionary.com***which identified the word wonk as being:
1960–65, Americanism ; of expressive orig.; nautical slang wonk “a midshipman,” Australian slang: “white person, homosexual” are probably independent formations
If, indeed, the word wonk originated as a nautical term for midshipman or an Australian word for a white, gay man, those definitions have definitely been overcome by more recent variations which remove any perjorative or demeaning intent.
My best shot at this is to say that a wonk appears to be someone who has put a great deal of time, perhaps obsessively, into the study of a particular subject. It may have nothing to do with their personal lives, but describes their access to information most people don’t have. I have a friend who is well read and highly informed about historical military literature. That’s only one factor in his otherwise interesting, varied, and perfectly normal life. But I suspect he is what one might call a wonk on that specific topic.
When I watch the cable political commentary shows they put people around the table who are really knowledgeable about economic, military, social or spiritual issues. They are wonks. The person they bring in who is considered an international expert on the events of the British royalty is a wonk. The guy who knows everything there is to know about European football (soccer to most of us) is a wonk. And, I’m sorry to say, the woman who has gathered every detail available about the Kardasian sisters is a wonk also.
I suspect this word, wonk, is new enough that it’s still in the process of “becoming.” Ten years or more from now we may have a better understanding of its actual meaning. For right now, it’s just a fascinating word with lots of meanings.
Photo Credit: vinotology
*Dictionary of American Slang and Colloquial Expressions by Richard A. Spears.Fourth Edition.
Copyright 2007. Published by McGraw Hill.
**Online Etymology Dictionary, © 2010 Douglas Harper
Based on the Random House Dictionary, © Random House, Inc. 2012.