What’s a wonk?
By Brian Bethune
The sort of human who knows the minutia of Canadian tariff regulation in the marrow of their bones is a wonk. We can all agree on this. How the name ‘wonk’ came to be, however, is a somewhat more wonky story.
There’s been fanciful speculation dating back to the post-war world, as the Age of the Wonk—and its inevitable reaction, Rage Against the Wonk—dawned. It ranges from the notion that “wonk” was “know” spelled backwards, through the tongue-in-cheek acronym explanation (“WithOut Normal Knowledge”), to the suggestion it was an American variant of the British “wanker” (presumably because it involved some sort of intellectual masturbation). Tom Wolfe may have reached the heights of that game when he claimed that wonk referred to very smart lower-class students who had penetrated the upper crust’s home bases of elite prep schools and Ivy league universities, but lacked the telltale “honk” of an East Coast patrician in full voice.
It’s time then, to turn to the Oxford English Dictionary, the ultimate creation of word wonks, (should that subtype exist) and an object of veneration for word nerds (who most definitely do). At first the OED did not include an entry for wonk. But the two editors who survived the 50-year struggle to complete the original dictionary in 1928 did not collapse in an exhausted heap, but heroically went back to work and published a supplement only five years later.
And there they are, the first dated references to noun and adjective, wonk and wonky. From the start, the adjective carried the meaning it still (mostly) does today. Taken from a character description in a short story by Edgar Wallace, an author as famous in his day as Tom Wolfe was in his, the 1925 citation reads: “Financial adviser to some heads of departments, whose accounts went a little wonky.” A little off, a little unsteady, like a static-spewing radio.
But the noun? “I feel all of a doo-dah,” reads a line in the May 1918 issue of the well-regarded Chambers’s Journal magazine, “all of a wonk.” The connection between noun and adjective seems clear. But there is no throughline from a state of mental fugue a century ago to the minds of today’s policy experts, unless there is statistical evidence that pedestrians whose heads are abuzz with tariff details are as likely to be struck by cars as text-obsessed smartphone users.
While the adjective has carried on across the Anglosphere, only slightly bleeding into the space usually occupied by “wonkish”—that is, occasionally describing the attributes of policy wonks rather than less-than-optimal machine performance—the noun’s 1918 meaning has faded away. And may never have crossed the Atlantic. There is some indication of a similar meaning being applied to U.S. Navy midshipmen in the 1920s. If true, it’s easily imaginable as a back formation from the adjective—as the wonky cadets stumbled around the decks until they developed their sea legs, their experienced crewmates might have called them wonks. But that American usage, should it have existed, also soon disappeared.
Cue the 1950s, and vastly expanding governmental activities, think tanks, technical innovation and webs of international agreements. Among all the terminology applied to those trained to cope with—or merely fascinated by—complex change in policy and technology, wonk, nerd and geek emerged as the victorious triumvirate. Virtually everyone has a general feel for the distinctions between the three, coupled with a corresponding difficulty in expressing them. Most common is that the wonks are serious people, involved with important albeit eye-glazingly dull matters, although that is not always true. In 2004 the Economist so stressed the sobriety and seriousness of an upcoming trade meeting in Geneva, wonkery’s Eternal City, as to raise the possibility the magazine believed there were such creatures as “frivolous wonks.”
Most people would call them nerds, or even geeks, a group frequently dismissed (by nerds) as nerds with low social skills—leading to a long-running debate on how to label Bill Gates. Those two groups are more closely linked in the popular mind than either is to wonks—even if Gates is an undeniable wonk when it comes to malaria prevention—since nerds and geeks can be cool, because their passions (movies, software, pandas, Taylor Swift) can have widespread appeal. The words “cool” and “wonk” do sometimes appear in the same sentence, but rarely without the word “not.”
There are undeniable and unbreakable links, though, between groups defined by their degree of enthusiastic expertise. They’ve all proudly re-homed the slurs thrown at them. There is no end to self-professed nerds on the Internet, Best Buy maintains a Geek Squad to help its customers, and a ‘wonk prom’ is held after the Public Policy Forum’s annual Testimonial Dinner Honour Roll. All of which goes to show that Tiny Tim was correct in what he surely meant to say: God bless us, wonk and all.