You’re a wonk about a subject if you know the subject backwards.
Get it? Know backwards is wonk.
So is that where wonk comes from? Some people think so. Others – including some of the most noteworthy word wonks – declare that they don’t know. There are other words wonk, including a naval term for a greenhorn sailor, Australian slang for a white person or an effeminate man, and a mutated borrowing from Chinese meaning ‘yellow dog’ (and often seen in the phrase wonk dog). There is also the word wonky, which means ‘off-kilter, unstable, unreliable’, and there is some suggestion that wanker may have been an influence too (wanker, for those who don’t know, is a British term that literally calls the person an onanist and thus more broadly and figuratively functions similarly to its American counterpart jerk).
The word wonk was formerly more pejorative than it generally is now; just as nerd was once an insult but now is elevated to near-approbation, and geek has gone all the way from a term of disgust and abuse to high praise, wonk has moved from a word for a boring, excessively focused, swottish (that’s a Britishism) person, towards one for an interesting, respectworthy, highly focused, swottish person.
And there is now one area above all in which one may be a wonk. Yes, you could be a math wonk or a word wonk (or language wonk or whatever), but in the general usage wonk has a steady wordfriend: policy. Political staff who know all about the little details of how things are done and can be done and should be done are policy wonks. This seems to have become a popular term under President Clinton, who showed a predilection for hiring highly intelligent, highly focused, swottish people. You get an image of an introverted person with an abstractly intense look – and glasses, probably – dispensing precise thoughts and ramified recommendations to a blow-dried (but perhaps thoughtful) candidate. Nerdy, maybe a little, but no less attractive than the sharp tools on Criminal Minds, if without all the blood.
There’s no question about it, this word has an awkward sound. With its labiovelar start, its nasal open vowel, and its knock at the back, it sounds like something large and hollow being struck, or a goose venting at you. But if you look at the different elements that might make it so – /wɑ/, /ɑŋ/ or /ɑ̃/, /ɑ̃k/, /ŋk/ – they all show up in non-awkward words as well: water, song, think… Ugliness of sound is no preventative for prettiness of sense. Once you get to be a word wonk, possibilities open up all around you.