Luke Taylor

Grammar Grater®

with Luke Taylor

Episode 95: Pundits, Hacks and Wonks

The word pundit is often heard when reporters talk to experts in a specific field.

Let's bring in some technology pundits to talk about the latest computer trends.

According to A Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English (8th Edition), by Eric Partridge and edited by Paul Beale, a pundit is a colloquial word that means an erudite expert. The word first appeared in English in the early 1800s. An early print citation of the word comes from the March 15, 1862 issue of the Saturday Review:

"The doctors of etiquette and the pundits of refinement will differ."

Pundit comes to English from Hindi, one of the languages of India, where it means a learned or skilled person. The word gained currency in English during the Raj—that is, the period of British rule in the Indian subcontinent, which spanned the years 1858 to 1947. The OED cites that the Pundit of the Supreme Court in India was a Hindu Law-Officer whose duty it was to advise the English Judges when needful on questions of Hindu Law.

Nowadays a pundit is an expert in any field. According to the Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English, the word pundit has been Standard English since at least 1930. In fact, it is from the word pundit that the noun punditry was created. First cited in 1926 according to the OED, punditry refers to either the characteristics of a pundit or to opinions or actions befitting a pundit.

According to The Cassell Dictionary of Slang, by Jonathan Green, a wonk is an expert in the minutiae of a particular field. For example, in politics, a policy wonk is an expert in the finest details of policy.

The Oxford Dictionary of Slang suggests the word originated at Ivy League universities in the eastern United States in the 1960s. On campus, the word referred to a hard-working student. The Cassell Dictionary of Slang elucidates by saying that the term wonk was applied to "anyone who works harder than the rest of the students see fit."

The etymology of wonk is unclear, but there is some suggestion that it comes from what is known as backslang—that is, disguising a word by simply spelling it backwards. Here's a 1980 citation from the New York Times magazine:

"At Harvard, the excessively studious student is derided as a 'wonk', which Amy Berman, Harvard [class of] '79, fancifully suggests may be 'know' spelled backward."

The Oxford Dictionary of Slang also says that the word wonk can mean an inexperienced person or a beginner, and this derives from navy slang, where the name wonk was given to a new cadet or midshipman; essentially, an inexperienced sailor. But that sense of wonk comes from the adjective wonky. The Cassell Dictionary of Slang defines wonky as an adjective used to describe a person or object that is unsteady, unstable or out of kilter. For example:

Let's not sit at this table. It's got a wonky leg.

And it's also the foundation of this popular kids' joke:
What do you call a three-legged donkey? A wonky!

The word wonky can also be applied to things that are used by or characteristic of a wonk in the "expert" sense of the word. It's important to note, however, that one should be careful it doesn't get confused with the other meaning of wonky. For example, in this sentence:

"Vehicle miles traveled—the wonky term for how much we drive—have dropped for 11 straight months."

It takes careful reading of this sentence to realize that the writer means wonky in the sense that the term "vehicle miles traveled" is used by wonks—that is, the people who study such things. But it could be easily construed that the writer means that the term 'vehicle miles traveled' is itself wonky—that is to say, it is unsteady or unreliable. Perhaps a word like "scientific" or "specific" or "industry" would have been a better choice there.

The Cassell Dictionary of Slang says the word hack, in the sense we're talking about this week, first appeared in the late 18th century and it was originally a derogatory term applied to a reporter or journalist, but that nowadays it's used tongue-in-cheek. The Oxford Dictionary of Slang supports this, saying the term is often applied jocularly by journalists to themselves.

The word hack can also be used among people who aren't writers or reporters. The Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English suggests the word hack has been generalized to mean a person whose services may be hired for any kind of work required of him or her.

The Oxford English Dictionary notes that this sense of hack comes from hackney, which is a type of horse that's used particularly for riding and carriage-driving. It's a hard-working, reliable breed ... which actually makes the word hack sound like a compliment.

Sources: Oxford English Dictionary, The Oxford Dictionary of Slang by John Ayto, The Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English (8th Edition) by Eric Partridge and edited by Paul Beale; The Cassell Dictionary of Slang by Jonathan Green

Music: "I Know, I Know, I Know" by Tegan and Sara; "Wada Na Tod" by Lata Mangeshkar; "Knowing Me, Knowing You" by ABBA

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