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Strictly Speaking | Wonk

Informal words for other people we don’t identify with come and go, but wonk is unusual in having recently resurfaced after several previous appearances in Australia with different meanings each time. It’s recorded from the 1930s as a derogatory word used by Aborigines for a white person, and by white people for others who looked down on them. Overlapping in time from the end of WWII, wonk was used to refer to an effeminate or homosexual man. More recently, originating in the US in the 1960s, it’s been used as a disparaging term for an overly studious or hard-working person, equivalent to the British “swot” in student circles, and used that way in Australia. Such wonks as graduates become hyperspecialised in a particular field, hence compounds such as computer wonk or musical wonk (aka a geek or nerd). The intensity of the wonk’s special interest and sometimes obsessive conversation tends to turn off those who are by definition nonwonks. Wonks of a different character are the policy wonks to be found in the corridors of power. Those who double as “policy wonk and political guru” would be just what every government needs. But those whose conversation is wonkish are not people you’d want to share a desert island with. In that situation you would definitely count yourself as a nonwonk.

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