2012 US-to-UK Word of the Year: wonk

As I noted in the UK-to-US WotY post, this hasn't been a particularly 'big' year for American imports to Britain. Those that were nominated were mostly things that were not clearly American before they were British; that is (in many cases), though an American may have been first to use them, they immediately entered general English. Other nominations didn't seem to have anything particularly "2012" about them--they'd been steadily climbing in BrE for 10 or 20 years, with no particular notice or peak in 2012. But one nomination, by reader Joe, stood out for me.  Ladies and germs, the 2012 US-to-UK Word of the Year is

...as in policy wonk.  I'll let Joe's nomination start the talking:
My nomination for AmE to BrE WOTY is "Wonk" as in "Policy Wonk".

Google searches of pages from the UK show a number of examples, and Oxford and Cambridge dictionaries online both list the AmE sense of the word (the Oxford also has the British Naval slang sense).

The clincher for me though was to hear “(Policy) Wonk” used on BBC Radio 4 by Jane Garvey during the 12 November broadcast of “Woman’s Hour” in a segment where she was debating “who are the women who matter in UK politics?” with Allegra Stratton, the political editor of BBC Two’s “Newsnight”. If it's on "Woman's Hour", surely that's a sign it's moving out from the "Chattering Classes / West Wing fans" and into the mainstream?

The American Heritage entry for wonk marks it as slang and defines it as:
1. A student who studies excessively; a grind.
2. One who studies an issue or a topic thoroughly or excessively
I have not seen the first meaning in BrE, which has its equivalent in the BrE noun swot. It's the second meaning that has been imported (showing once again that borrowings from one language/dialect to another are rarely "complete" or "faithful").

In addition to Joe's noticing it on Woman's Hour, the thing that makes this a word for 2012 is the fact that Ed Miliband (the leader of the Labour Party) flew his wonk flag at the Labour Party Conference:

That the newspaper had to provide a footnote translation of wonk (using another Americanism that's come into BrE, geek) is evidence of its relative newness in BrE.*

Wonk's entry into BrE is complicated a bit by the BrE word wonky (which is currently making inroads in AmE), which means 'unsteady; apt to malfunction; not quite right'. But that doesn't seem to be holding it back. Hail to the wonks!  And to wonk!

* This recency is not necessarily the picture you'll get if you try to find evidence of wonk's use in BrE.  Collins English Dictionary doesn't bother marking wonk as AmE and includes two Sunday Times examples from 2002. Other early examples seem more tricky to identify as BrE. There's one policy wonk in the British National Corpus, way back in 1990, but it's from The Economist, in an article about US politics--so it was probably written by someone in the US, and perhaps someone American. Google Ngram viewer shows an increase in policy wonk in "British English" books since the 1990s, but click on the link to the books, and you'll find that most seem to be American books by American authors, including the Oxford Dictionary of American Political Slang (by Grant Barrett) and a collection of William Safire's 'On Language' columns from the New York Times Magazine. I've said before that Google Ngram Viewer is not to be trusted as a source on AmE/BrE differences, and I feel the need to say it again: Google Ngram Viewer is bad at identifying American English versus British English, even though it gives you the option of choosing between them. Lastly, when I do a custom search on plain old Google, searching for the word on sites last updated in a particular period, it doesn't given me the number of hits, for some reason. (What's up with that, Google?)  


  1. I've never heard the word "wonk" before. Should I feel guilty or is not used very frequently? I've been using wonky for years and never knew it was British.

  2. Native AmE speaker here. I have also never heard "wonk" used in this sense (I've only heard it used as a variation on "wonky"). I also never realized "wonky" was BrE-specific (it's been in my lexicon as long as I can remember).

    As for an AmE word which has the given definition of "wonk" or "swot", I'd probably go with geek or nerd. In the dialect of English spoken by MIT students, "tool" would definitely be the proper choice, but that that word means something closer to "asshole" at other universities.

  3. swot has a whole different meaning in US business. from the wikipedia
    Setting the objective should be done after the SWOT analysis has been performed. This would allow achievable goals or objectives to be set for the organization.

    Strengths: characteristics of the business, or project team that give it an advantage over others
    Weaknesses: are characteristics that place the team at a disadvantage relative to others
    Opportunities: external chances to improve performance (e.g. make greater profits) in the environment
    Threats: external elements in the environment that could cause trouble for the business or project

  4. Andrew "Two-brains" Willets (sic) was surely the original UK policy wonk, way back in the post 1997 Tory party.
    But then that was probably still jargon, since I was at the time something of a policy wonk myself.

  5. What do you call a donkey with three legs? Answer: a wonky

    That's the kind of joke (groan) that Brits expect to find in their Christmas crackers - small explosive devices wrapped in shiny paper, also usually including a small toy and a paper hat.

    During the search for these newly-transferred transatlantic words, I began to speculate a) that there are no/few such transfers any more, as out movies and TV experiences are so similar (but this is counterbalanced by the wonderful crop of 'untranslatables' in the same posting, b) that we are relying on written evidence for new words that must surely be spoken in order to interest a linguist! Radio and TV usages are a kind of half-way house because much of the talk is actually scripted - and then we have transcripts from these programmes to add to the 'corpus'...

  6. Congratulations on finally finding a 2012 US-to-UK Word of the Year, Lynne -- though I feel it has been a difficult confinement. For one thing, hasn't "wonk" (in the "policy wonk" collocation) been around for yonks on this (eastern) side of the Atlantic? Or am I just too much of a news-and-comment wonk myself to be able to avoid the effects of "professional deformation"? (<- a French to English transmission, that -- but one that belongs to "Separated by Common False Friendship")

    For what it's worth, I don't think there's any connection between "wonk" and the (British only?) word "wonky", meaning "unsteady, shaky".

    I always picture wonks as having long and brightly-coloured standing-up hair (at least, in their inner, real appearance) ...Oh no: that's GONKS! Still, I think they're closely related :-)

  7. Is "boffin" an approximate BrE correlate of "wonk"? It's very gradually catching on in the US, partly because it's so much fun to say (and sounds slightly dirty to American ears).

  8. I am one American who thought "wonk" was British. In fact, I thought it was British reverse-spelling slang, like "yob". On the other hand, I have been reading The Economist for about 30 years.

    Charles Wells

  9. Midwest US resident, I have never in my live heard the word Wonk. Used in that context or any other. Wonky, yes, Wonk, no. Are you sure this is an AmE word?

  10. *life, not live....

    I agree with dta, I would probably use tool.

  11. Nancy asked "Is 'boffin' an approximate BrE correlate of 'wonk'?"

    Hmm, not really, to my mind.

    Boffins are bald or balding, wear round glasses, have a Clement Attlee moustache, and almost invariably smoke a pipe. Beneath their lab coats they wear tweed suits, and MAY sport a bow tie (but usually only if they were born in Austria). Their heyday was 1940-1955 and they are essentially hands-on, PRACTICAL, applied-science technologists. Without them it's doubtful we would ever have won WWII.

    Wonks, on the other hand, are essentially THEORISTS, and a much more recent development (fl. post 1975?). They don't get their hands dirty but exercise their "finely-honed minds" in examining and commenting upon the minutiae of their chosen field (without necessarily having any personal expertise in it). Policy wonks, in particular, are often aspiring politicians, and therefore favour sharp suits, styled haircuts, and contact lenses -- and if they smoke at all take pains to conceal the fact.

  12. Another US Midwesterner... As a former college debater I knew the word, but didn't personally use the word until the 2012 election when I starting reading Nate Silver's FiveThirtyEight and Ezra Klein's Wonkblog. I'm guessing wonk might be more common to those living in the DC metro area.

  13. I (late 40's AmE speaker) first noticed "wonk" during the Clinton years. This word is probably more familiar to people in politics or interested in politics or public policy.

  14. In the 40s there was an attractive series of illustrated story books for children about Peter and Wonk, who was a very hairy dog or perhaps koala. Norman Lamont resembled Wonk so that had been his nickname.

  15. Norman Lamont, I suspect, has had many a nickname, some of them unrepeatable in polite company.

    But that's by the by. I seem to recall The Guardian explaining the meaning of "policy wonk" at the time, and in the context, of the early months of the Clinton Presidency, or maybe even during the previous campaign, as a new and distinctive term. In my mind it indicated something different from previous styles of think-tank expert - someone younger, maybe, and distinctive from both a practitioner of the lower political arts and a less partisan academic researcher.

  16. So what's the connection with Willy Wonker (Star of the children's book "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory" by Roald Dahl)?

  17. That would be Willy Wonka not wonker, but Great Question Richard law!

  18. I think the commenters got it right when they traced this word's usage to the Clinton era. As an AmE speaker and recovering journalist, it is not a word I use much, but I have used it some and read it a lot. It came about when politicians wanted to be viewed as policy experts in their own right rather than executives who relied on input from others.

    However, I have also heard and read "wonky" used with a similar meaning. For example, "She is a wonky politician" would mean she is inclined to become a topic expert herself rather than rely on advisers. I have also heard conversations labeled as "wonky" when they tended to dwell in finer, more nuanced aspects of policies. So that raises the potential for confusion on this side of the Atlantic, especially now, as so many politicians are wonky, in both definitions.

  19. World Wide Words has covered the (lack of) connection to Willy Wonka here: http://www.worldwidewords.org/qa/qa-pol1.htm

  20. A memorable line from future senator Al Franken's sitcom Lateline was a description of guest "star" Norman Orenstein of the American Enterprise Institute as "the wonkiest wonk in wonk-dom."

  21. (late 60's, Am Midwest) - Politics "wonk" on TV and media (usually "policy wonk"). Never in the wild. Still think wonk, geek, and nerd should exist on some continuum of obsession.

  22. I think of "wonk" as a peculiarly Washingtonian word. I believe people in this region are the only ones who consider a compliment. American University has a series of advertisements using it to refer to their graduates.

    And, of course, there is the local folk etymology that claims that a "wonk" is one who is said to know his subject backwards.

  23. My first thought when I saw the screenshot from The Sun was that the asterisk was used because the paper didn't want people to think that they'd used a slightly different four-letter word that gets spelled using the letter "a" instead of "o". (Or, more likely, not using the asterisk would have resulted in a libel suit.) The confusion between "wonk" and that other word may be why "wonk" isn't used much in British English.

  24. My first thought when I saw the screenshot from The Sun was that the asterisk was used because the paper didn't want people to think that they'd used a slightly different four-letter word that gets spelled using the letter "a" instead of "o". (Or, more likely, not using the asterisk would have resulted in a libel suit.) The confusion between "wonk" and that other word may be why "wonk" isn't used much in British English.

  25. This seems odd to me. I'm American- from Texas- and I've heard 'wonky' as in 'odd' or 'not functioning properly' quite a lot, but have never in my life heard 'wonk'.

  26. Policy wonk or policy wank indeed. Reminds me of the US predilection for tidbits as opposed to BrE titbits and the fact that BrE has shuttlecock and AmE calls it a bird. BrE often seems to be less afraid of a bit of honest obscenity...


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AmE = American English
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OED = Oxford English Dictionary (online)