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drawing of a woman with blue eyes and glasses
figure 1  


wonk. A disparaging term for a studious or hardworking person.reference 1

What makes this a dog term, the reader may reasonably ask. As with many etymological stories, this one is convoluted and may not even be true. The Oxford English Dictionary asserts that the word wonk derives from “a term commonly applied by foreigners to the ordinary Chinese dog. From the Ningpo pronunciation wou n kyi, of the above two characters.”reference 2 In the U.S., the term is more often transliterated as huang gou,which makes the wonkiness of the pronunciation less vivid. William Safire states that the term is “applied to animals that scavenge or work slavishly,” which suggests a distinct connection between the original corrupted Chinese and its present use.reference 3 However, he offers no particular support for this contention, and none of the examples I was able to unearth seemed to suggest that these yellow dogs were seen as especially hardworking.

The OED offers an early citation with this explicit definition attached in a Sports Illustrated article of 1962, but it offers no particular insight as to how this term came to have this meaning.reference 4 They do quote an earlier Safire column, “At Harvard the excessively studious student is derided as a ‘wonk’, which Amy Berman, Harvard '79, fancifully suggests may be ‘know’ spelled backward.”reference 5

photograph of a small yellow dog with a cellphone to his ear
figure 2

Wonk entered the popular political lexicon in the 1992 presidential campaign when both Bill Clinton and Al Gore were derided as “policy wonks” who were deeply interested in the minutiae of policy issues.reference 6

1. The Oxford English Dictionary Online. 2005. 3d ed. Accessed Jun 30 2006 from http://

2. Ibid.

3. Safire, William. 1992. The 'Bizarre' Bazaar. New York Times Magazine, Jul 26, 8.

4. The Oxfore English Dictionary Online.

5. Safire, William. 1980. Words for Nerds. New York Times Magazine, Jul 20, 2. Accessed Jun 30 2006 from http:// nytimes/ 111797335.html? did =111797335&FMT =ABS&FMTS= AI&date= Jul+20%2C+ 1980&author= By+William+Safire&pub= New+York+Times++ (1857-Current+file) &desc=On+Language.

6. Safire, William. 1992.

About the illustrations: Figure 1 is a caricature of Ana Marie Cox, the original Wonkette and the former editor of the political blog of the same name. This image is copyrighted and unlicensed. I believe that the use of this scaled-down, low-resolution image to illustrate the article “wonk” qualifies as fair use under United States copyright law.

Figure 2 accompanies a story from Weird Asia News about a cell phone stealing dog.reference 7 Given the image of political wonks carrying their Blackberries wherever they go, it seemed a fitting image.

7. Sun Tzu. 2007. When Chinese Pets Become Hardened Criminals. Weird Asia News. Weird Asia News. Accessed Mar 9 2008 from http:/ / 2007/ 01/ 18/ when-chinese-pets- become-hardened-criminals/.
see also: yellow dog; yellow dog Democrat Last updated: March 31, 2008
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