Language Corner

The preoccupation of ‘wonks’

February 19, 2021
Sharp graphite pencils on grey background, closeup

If you’re looking for evidence on how language can change, look no further than William Safire’s 1980 “On Language” column in the New York Times discussing collegiate slang—or, as Safire puts it, “campusese.”  

According to that column, easy courses were called “guts,” and people who would do anything for an A were called “throats,” short for “cutthroats.” “Throats” was a replacement for “grinds,” itself a replacement for “bookworm.”

Other terms for “grinds” mentioned in that Safire column were “ ‘squid’ (an ink squirter), ‘pencil geek,’ ‘spider’ and ‘grub.’ ” Such terms even got campus specific: “At Yale, the grind is a ‘weenie,’ ” and “at Harvard, the excessively studious student is derided as a ‘wonk,’ which Amy Berman, Harvard ’79, fancifully suggests may be ‘know’ spelled backward. (In British slang, ‘wonky’ means ‘unsteady.’)” 

Forty years later, only “wonk” remains in common use, albeit in a slightly different sense. 

Merriam-Webster defines “wonk” as “a person preoccupied with arcane details or procedures in a specialized field” or, broadly, a “nerd.” says a “wonk” is “a student who spends much time studying and has little or no social life; grind” (as in Safire); or “a stupid, boring, or unattractive person”; or “a person who studies a subject or issue in an excessively assiduous and thorough manner.”

Sign up for CJR's daily email

That last definition is the one mostly used today, usually accompanied by an adjective explaining what kind of “wonk” the person is. “The Clash of Liberal Wonks That Could Shape the Economy, Explained,” read a New York Times headline. Senator Bill Cassidy of Louisiana “makes his mark as a policy wonk in the U.S. Senate,” read another from last October, a characterization repeated after Cassidy, a Republican, voted to convict Donald Trump in his second impeachment.

Webster’s New World College Dictionary, the one favored by the Associated Press, calls “wonk” slang. And though its synonyms are slightly insulting terms like “nerd,” “geek,” and “dweeb,” “wonk” is worn as a badge of honor by many people who are specialists in their field (or claim to be).

But, if Safire was skeptical that “wonk” is a backward spelling of “know,” where does it come from? calls it “An Americanism first recorded in 1960–65; of expressive origin.” M-W traces the current definition to 1954, giving no citation; Safire’s 1980 mention is the earliest we can find in Nexis, which goes back only about forty-five years.

Turns out, the word “wonk” has had many (unconnected) meanings over the years. A 1918 use listed in the Oxford English Dictionary was “In all of a wonk: nervous, upset.” In 1929, “wonk” went to sea, with a nautical sense as “a useless hand, or a young naval cadet who has not yet learnt the elements of his job.” By 1962, a “wonk” at sea was merely a “midshipman.”

Getting closer to our current meanings, in 1962, Sports Illustrated said “wonk” was a disparaging term for a studious or hardworking person: “A wonk, sometimes called a ‘turkey’ or a ‘lunch,’ roughly corresponds to the ‘meatball’ of a decade ago.” And, appropriate for not long after Valentine’s Day, Erich Segal used it in his 1970 novel Love Story: “Who could Jenny be talking to that was worth appropriating moments set aside for a date with me? Some musical wonk?”

The OED has a 2006 draft addition, “wonkish”: “originally U.S. Politics excessively concerned with minute points of (governmental) policy…(also more generally) bookish, intellectual; extremely detailed or specialized.” It traces “policy wonk” to 1984 in The New Republic, referring to Walter Mondale’s “thralldom to the policy wonks and wise men of the Washington establishment.”

We are still not any closer to the etymology of “wonk.” The OED has a clue, in its entry for “wonky,” which it traces to 1919: “Of a person: shaky, groggy; unstable,” the British definition Safire cited. “Of a thing: faulty, unsound; unreliable.” The OED says its etymology is “Obscure: the German element wankel- has similar force.”

Where have you heard that word “wankel” before? Those old enough may remember when Mazda began offering the “Wankel engine” in the early 1970s. Could that be a connection? Wikipedia defines a Wankel engine as “a type of internal combustion engine using an eccentric rotary design to convert pressure into rotating motion.” “Eccentric” might be stretched to fit the human definition of “wonky” (and the engine did turn out to be somewhat unreliable). But the engine was named for Felix Wankel, the German who invented it, long after “wonky” came into use. So never mind.

Instead, the “German element wankel-” means “fickle.” Kind of like the way meanings of words like “wonk” sometimes act.

PREVIOUSLY: Our year of pandemic words

Merrill Perlman managed copy desks across the newsroom at the New York Times, where she worked for twenty-five years. Follow her on Twitter at @meperl.