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Sunday, June 9, 2013


Today's word-of-the-day on Dictionary.com was wonk, and it reminded me that--years ago--I'd published a little op-ed piece about that word in the Philadelphia Inquirer.  Some online searching located the piece from 13 September 1992.  (I was teaching at Harmon Middle School in Aurora in 1992.)  And--here 'tis, fresh from the days when wonk was just entering the public vocabulary:

On The Trail Of The Elusive Wonk, As In, 'Boy, Is That Guy A Wonk!' Why Not Pedant?Defined As "A Person Who Makes An Excessive Use Of Learning."

POSTED: September 13, 1992

I learned a new word this summer. Wonk.
It was during the Democratic National Convention that several network floor reporters used the term to refer to Gov. Clinton, usually appending it to policy, as in "Governor Clinton is a policy wonk."
They acted as if everyone knew the word.
Then I came across the word in print. In an article in the July 27 New Republic, Sidney Blumenthal used it: "Bill Clinton can talk the talk and walk the walk, but he is never quite the perfect wonk."

The following week, Blumenthal's article about Gov. Clinton and Sen. Gore was headlined: "The Wonks."
Although I'd read the word, I didn't really know exactly what it meant.
(It takes no act of supreme cerebration, however, to infer that it is a near-cousin to "nerd" or "geek.")
Being something, I suppose, of a word-wonk, I scurried to The Random House Dictionary of English Language to confirm my suspicion - but found only ''wonky," a British slang word meaning "shaky, or wobbly."
Unfazed, I consulted The Compact Edition of the Oxford English Dictionary. Only a single 1918 usage of the word: "nervous, upset."
Mildly daunted, I tried A Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English (8th ed.). Two entries:
* "yellow dog. A term commonly applied by foreigners to the ordinary chinese dog." Surely the network floor reporters and Blumenthal were not calling Clinton a yellow dog? This was an insult more Buchananian, or Gingrichy.
* "a useless seaman; a very inexperienced Naval cadet." Hmmmm. The governor, as I recall, elected not to serve in the military. Wrong definition.
Finally, I consult the Dictionary of American Slang and Colloquial Expressions which defines "wonk" as "an earnest student."
So, if Gov. Clinton is a "policy wonk", it means he is a serious student of public policy who is excessively fond of talking about it.
But why wonk?
Why not pedant? Defined as "A person who makes an excessive or inappropriate show of learning," pedant is a perfectly serviceable word here - as anyone who heard Clinton's 52-minute acceptance speech can testify.
And "policy pedant" has even more alliterative appeal than "policy wonk."
Ah, but "wonk" carries with it the power of that hard terminal consonant so characteristic of other celebrated four-letter words.
In support of this hypothesis, two other slang dictionaries I consulted agreed that its origin may be "wanker," a 19th century slang word meaning ''masturbator."
I doubt that. Although it is conceivable that wonks, like wankers, provide pleasure only to themselves, I suspect my colleague was right when I asked him if he knew the origin of the word: "Sure," he sighed. "It's know spelled backwards."
Whatever the origin, the word has now been broadcast into millions of homes, and the governor, previously known as "Slick Willie," may now be called "Willie Wonka" - although, as far as I know, he has no interest in chocolate factories other than consuming massive quantities of their output.
No doubt we will soon see the word used in all wonks of life: Wonkify, crypto-wonk, pseudo-wonk, wonkism, wonkophobia, wonkopolis, wonkdom and wonkicide are just a few the language could accommodate.
Let not this exercise in wonkology end without consideration of two other excellent forms of the word: "wonkette" (a wonk-in-training), and "wonkey" (a Democrat wonk).
Doubtless the final assimilation of "wonk" into our common vocabulary will be the appearance of bumper stickers: HONK IF YOU'RE A WONK!

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