Q: American University, in its radio advertisements, uses the word “wonk” as a positive part of its mission. I should have thought it was a slangy, moderately derisive tern. It also grates. What is your view?
A: When we wrote about this subject on our blog back in 2007, the use of “wonk” or “wonkish” to refer to someone obsessed with minute points of policy was relatively recent.
We said then that the Oxford English Dictionary’s first citation for “wonkish” in this sense was from a 1992 Washington Post article referring to “a lot of wonkish material” (targeted tax cuts, community policing, and social and educational reform).
But the OED has since come up with a much earlier usage from Steven Kelman’s Push Comes to Shove (1970), a memoir of political life at Harvard: “Harry is afraid that with you and Dave, the room is going to become too political and wonkish.”
Seven years ago, “wonk” and “wonkish” were faintly derisive, suggesting a nerdy obsession with policy details.
Since then, however, some of the negative senses have fallen away. Among many Washington insiders, “wonks” are on the cutting edge of what’s happening in the Beltway.
(Outside the Beltway, much the same thing has happened to “nerd,” a label that’s become a badge of honor in information technology. We’ve written about that one too, in 2007.)
American University in Washington regards “wonk” as a positive—even coveted—label. As a 2010 article in the Washington Post reported, the school launched a marketing campaign branding itself the home of the “American Wonk.”
And in 2012 the university established a “Wonk of the Year” award. The school’s website says the award is intended “to recognize a well-known individual who represents the embodiment of a wonk.”
A wonk’s wonk, according to the university, is “someone smart, passionate, focused, and engaged who uses their knowledge and influence to create meaningful change in the world.”
The 2012 and 2013 honorees were Bill Clinton and CNN’s Anderson Cooper.
Not everyone at American University is gung-ho about wonkism or the school’s wonkish marketing campaign.
As InTheCapital, a wonkish news site in DC, noted, some students have objected that the campaign is overdoing the “wonk” business and making a joke of their career paths.
If you’d like to read more about wonkiness, our earlier post discusses the use of the adjective “wonky” to mean shaky, unsteady, or awry—a usage that’s primarily seen in the UK.