Decode Diction: Breaking down Washington lingo

A regular feature that decodes political phrases

WASHINGTON, D.C. - Let’s play a guessing game.

I’m looking for a word. It’s thrown around pretty frequently in Washington, D.C., as both an insult and a badge of honor. It’s funny sounding, four letters and looks more like slang than a political term. But it’s deeply embedded in the DC culture — and if you don’t know what it means, you definitely aren’t one.

Give up?

The word is “wonk.”

Where we’re hearing it:

It’s hard to go a day without hearing it in Washington. “Wonk” describes a person with an intense interest in an often dry topic. In politics, it frequently refers to a person who’s a master of some kind of policy.

The words “expert” and “wonk” often are used interchangeably. Many publications also have capitalized on the term, devoting blogs to people interested in the minutiae of politics or labeling themselves “wonkish” aka “in the know.”

Of course you can’t think about the word wonk today without some prime examples. Like Vox editor in Chief Ezra Klein, formerly of The Washington Post where he ran the economic and domestic policy vertical, The Wonk Blog.

Another master wonk is Nate Silver, the numbers guru who singlehandedly predicted the 2012 presidential election results and who now runs his own website FiveThirtyEight

Where we’ve heard it before:

The origins of “wonk” are unknown. One guess is that it was originally meant as an acronym or a play on words such as the inversion of the word “know,” although that theory has never been proven.

If you go to the reigning authority on weird words — Urban Dictionary — entries describe a wonk as:

1) An expert in a field, typically someone who is fairly young and very intelligent.

2) An expert — often used in a derogatory way, as in someone who fixates on the minutiae of an issue or a problem. 

The history of the word gets fuzzy if you dig deeper. One of the first places we found it used was to describe a person that has little connection to what we’d consider a wonk today. According to dictionary entries, in 1960s America a wonk was a midshipman considered to be trained in the craft of sailing at school but ended up being utterly helpless once at sea. In Australia, at about the same time, the term meant something very, very different — referring to a white, homosexual man.

What Kind of Wonk Are You? Take Our Quiz

One of the earliest uses of wonk in its modern definition was in a Sports Illustrated article written in 1962. The writer likened a wonk to a nerd. The article compares “preppies”, “wonks” and “clubbies” to describe an upcoming Harvard v. Yale football game: “A wonk, sometimes called a "turkey" or a "lunch," roughly corresponds to the "meatball" of a decade ago. Like the jock, the clubbie and the beatnik, the wonk is free to go his own way. Harvard fosters a live-and-let-live philosophy. Mike Foley, a jock who plays end on the football team, says of the wonks: "You have to respect them. One of them might come up with an invention in 20 years that will save the world." 

What it means now

The tricky thing about the word wonk is it can be used as an insult as well as a compliment. And it also varies based on the geography.

Courtesy of the Sunglight Foundation.

On the East Coast, wonks are mostly political, but thanks to Silicon Valley, the golden state has developed a breed of its own.

But both coast’s wonks are like the cousins of geeks; they are smart but not exactly cool. You might appreciate them for their intellect but criticize them for their deep obsessions with down-in-the-weeds details about obscure topics.

It was probably Bill Clinton who first brought the cool to wonk with his suave handling of interminable policy topics. He made people want to listen and learn and has been deemed “Wonk in Chief.” Who can forget his very lengthy—but engaging!—explanation of Obamacare at the 2012 Democratic National Convention?

But bestowing somebody with the “wonk” title is not easy. For example, ex-vice presidential candidate Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., is known for his obsession-like work with the federal budget. He has significant policy chops, but it’s apparently debatable as to whether he is a wonk.

You don’t’ have to be famous to be a wonk. Wonks are congressional staffers and the “experts” who hold fellowships at think tanks. They analyze numbers and legislation. They follow trends and build phone apps. 

Come to think of it, this blog post is also getting pretty wonky. So at the risk of sounding like a know-it-all, it’s up to you to decide where on the social scale a wonk falls.

Print this article Back to Top

Comments
Featured
DecodeDC's Mission

DecodeDC's foremost aim is to be useful. That means being a reliable, honest and highly entertaining source of insight and explanation. It also means providing multimedia coverage of Washington's people, culture, policies and politics that is enlightening and enjoyable. Whether it's a podcast, a video, an interactive graphic, a short story or a long analysis, it will be based on this guiding principle: We are in DC but not OF DC.