What's a wonk?

Conventional wisdom says Paul Ryan is a GOP wonk. Should he be pleased?

Published August 15, 2012 2:29PM (EDT)

Since Mitt Romney named Paul Ryan as his running mate, no description of the Wisconsin Congressman is complete without the word wonk. What does that mean anyway?

Context offers little relief: The Christian Post calls him “the budget wonk next door,” which has a folksy ring; The Akron Beacon Journal declares, “Paul Ryan: Policy wonk, prom king, fitness buff.” The American Prospect headlined one story, Lipstick on a wonk.”

Ezra Klein, a proud wonk, incorporates the term into the name of his blog for the Washington Post. He uses the word "in an effort to denote that we're doing something a lot different by covering Washington through a policy lens," he told Newsweek in a 2011 interview. "If you come to the site, that's what you're going to get: a look proudly and thoroughly infused with the idea that the basic work of Washington is policy, and that doesn't only affect people's lives, but it affects elections. There's no better way to convey that than right in the title.”

The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines a wonk as “a person preoccupied with arcane details or procedures in a specialized field.” Subsets of wonk include the “policy wonk,” (Ryan’s breed) and “computer wonk.” Variations include wonkery, wonkish, and wonkishness, none of which are acknowledged by my spell check. Synonyms include: Bookworm, dink, dork, geek, grind, swot (British), weenie and nerd.

This vocab wonk Web site suggests that the term originated as nautical slang and an oddly knowledgeable poster on slang site Urban Dictionary says that in this context it meant “nervous or upset,” as in, “the sailor's face had a sickly green to it which seemed to denote that poor man was wonk about being here.” Several sites also mentioned alternative meanings—“white person” and “effeminate male”—both of which are used only in Australia.

Even so, the term is a little lacking in macho quotient. A policy wonk is a candidate with a “preference for arcane policy details over back-slapping and baby-kissing,” according to Jon Morgan, who did an analysis of the word back in 1992. At the time he was referring to presidential hopeful Bill Clinton and running mate Al Gore, whom Newsweek called "tough, ambitious, leadership-minded policy wonks." It’s exactly the sort of compliment Ryan would like today.

By Jaime Cone

Jaime Cone is an editorial fellow at Salon.

MORE FROM Jaime Cone

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2012 Elections Ezra Klein Media Paul Ryan Politics