On the wonk

Like most families, I guess, we have our own words and phrases for things – sibdubs mean bark chippings for example. dirlie is girl, brekklefirst is easy to guess as breakfast, so I’m quite used to coming across other unconventional and maybe idiosyncratic words to mean common thing. We talk about things being ‘on the wonk’ meaning wonky or crooked, but the other day  I realised that what I had read as ‘work’ in a sentence, was actually ‘wonk’. I’d had to check that it was a real word and not a typo.

I’ve looked up wonky, a common enough word and this is what my favourite site tells me it means: shaky, groggy, unstable, 1919, of unknown origin. German prefix wankel- has a similar sense. Perhaps from surviving dialectal words based on Old English wancol “shaky, tottering” OK, that makes sense, but the sentence I read didn’t suggest that was what wonk meant. I looked it up. What I found out seemed a possibility:

“overly studious person,” 1962, earlier “effeminate male” (1954), American English student slang. Perhaps a shortening of British slang wonky “shaky, unreliable,” or a variant of British slang wanker “masturbator.” It seemed to rise into currency as a synonym for nerd late 1980s from Ivy League slang and was widely popularized 1993 during the presidency of Bill Clinton. Tom Wolfe (1988) described it as “an Eastern prep-school term referring to all those who do not have the ‘honk’ voice, i.e., all who are non-aristocratic.”

OK, so maybe that was the answer. Then I came across this: “a person who takes an enthusiastic or excessive interest in minor details of political policy. e.g. ‘he is a policy wonk in tune with a younger generation of voters’.”

I guess this is one more new word to learn and use, and before long will become unnoticeable among the general vocabulary!

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