I read this in the New York Times a couple of weeks ago, in Alexis Soloski’s review of a production of Peter Pan, with music by Leonard Bernstein:

Peter (Peter Smith, an impish nonbinary comedian) intuits that growing up means mommy-daddy stuff, which is awfuller than all the awful things that ever were. Since the play’s vision of marriage is the wonky relationship between Mr. and Mrs. Darling, who’s to say he’s wrong?

The NOOB in there, of course, is “wonky.” I hasten to say that there are two separate, unrelated “wonky”s, one American in origin and the other (Soloski’s) British. As Green’s Encyclopedia of Slang, the essential resource on these matters, says, the former derives from the noun “wonk” defined as: “(orig. US campus, also wonky) anyone who works harder than the rest of the students see fit; latterly used to describe an expert, e.g. policy wonk.” The first citation is from the Harvard Crimson in 1955: “The articles vary from a serious appraisal of the Ivy League education to a less high-minded account of the social life of Harvard ‘wonkies’ and their Princeton and Yale counterparts, ‘tools’  and ‘weenies.’” In the form of “policy wonk,” it crossed over to Britain by 1999, when it was used in The Guardian.

The adjective form is seen in a March 2017 headline in the Times: “How a Wonky National-Security Blog Hit the Big Time.”

Green’s defines the second “wonky” as “of a person or object, unsteady, unstable, out of kilter.” Here are the first citations; the Union Jack indicates they are from British sources:

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The first appearance of the British “wonky” in the New York Times, as far as I can tell, appeared in a 1993 article about Ralph Lauren by Gerri Hirshey. She wrote

The Gap, Banana Republic and J. Crew, to name a few, have successfully marketed his look at a lower price. It’s a kind of piggyback populism, this rush to things basic and essentially conservative, worn, in Gap ad campaigns, by the unassailably edgy and hip. They are photographed in minimalist black and white: actors, painters, musicians. This is, in its way, a rebirth of the Whitmanesque longing that caused the jeaning of America in the late 60’s and went so wonky.

Nerd-“wonky” still is used more commonly than out-of-kilter “wonky” in the Times, but the latter has gained popularity, showing up at least seven times so far in 2018, including the Peter Pan review and this quote from the makeup artist Patrick Ta:

“I think eyebrows are super important. Eyebrows, in my opinion, are such a big part of the face, so if you have wonky, ugly eyebrows then people just like me are going to be judging you.”

23 thoughts on ““Wonky”

  1. You are right about the slightly negative meaning of ‘wonky’ in British English but things have moved on in the past couple of years. In an effort to reduce waste, many supermarkets and other companies now sell misshapen or ‘wonky’ vegetables and fruit, and are using the term positively to show their ecological credentials. Here’s Jamie Oliver:

    … a staggering 20-40% of fruit and veg produced by UK farmers ends up wasted; either left for animal feed, ploughed back into the land or sent to landfill, because supermarkets don’t want them. In an exposé of what Jamie deems the “tip of the iceberg” of wasted wonky veg, the TV series sees Jamie and Jimmy visiting a Norfolk farm, where up to 10 tonnes of misshapen veg are rejected on a weekly basis. The reason? Because they look ugly.

    Supermarkets have tried to justify the waste by saying consumers won’t buy it. For years we’ve been used to seeing fruit and veg of a standard shape, size and colour. You compare a blemish-free carrot with its crooked friend, and which are you more likely to choose?

    The good news is it might be the latter. Sold at a discounted price, the idea of buying fruit and veg that taste just as good as their better-looking peers doesn’t seem like such a bad offer. According to Asda’s consumer research, 65% of customers are open to buying wonky fruit and veg, while 75% are more likely to buy them if they’re sold at a cheaper price. So wonky veg might not get thrown away, and farmers won’t be forced to over-produce to make sure they meet their targets.

    Has this practice appeared in the US yet? If so, what do you call it?

    1. I love “wasted wonky veg.” To my knowledge, the practice has not widely appeared yet in the U.S., although, as the British would say, it should do.

      1. Yep, an accidentally timely post. ‘Wonky’ is doing big business at the moment this side of the pond. e.g. watch Morrisons supermarket latest ads – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AEAYLubJPWc

        Also – “Morrisons, which has championed the sale of so called “wonky” veg – smaller or misshapen fruit and vegetables – said its popularity has helped make it the fastest-growing of the UK’s big four supermarkets.”

        I didn’t realise ‘wonky’ had a different meaning in the US (I’d heard of ‘wonk’ but not in adjective form i.e. wonky to mean nerdy). I guess if the misshapen veg thing takes off in the US it’ll have to be marketed under a different name. Or maybe, just maybe, it’s this Britishism’s best chance to properly crack the US?

  2. I’m trying to think what the British English would be for ‘like a [policy] wonk’. I think I would say ‘wonkish’ rather than ‘wonky’ for that.

    There is also another meaning for ‘wonk’, which I remember from my childhood in the 1970s. It was a particular kind of toy in the form of a hairy creature with a large face stuck on the front and little feet and hands. I tried to Google for it just now and it seems to have vanished completely – there are no images or reference at all apparently. They came in all sizes – the largest I had was about a foot tall, and the smallest was on a key-ring.

  3. the British slang term that I think best corresponds to the original school-slang American “wonk” as someone who studies really hard would be “swot”. Of course “swot” is a noun based on the verb “to swot” which means to study really hard, and there’s no corresponding verb “to wonk” in that sense.

  4. Curiously, they’ve just started showing an US series called Stitchers on British TV and a character said “There’s something wonky going on.” when something odd happened.

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