The adjective wonky has two unrelated senses that are both used throughout the English-speaking world. Its older and more commonly used definition is unstable, defective, unreliable, or wobbly. For instance, a bad knee or a table with loose fittings might be called wonky, as might a person who behaves unpredictably. The word’s second sense is studiously concerned with minutiae. It connotes the kind of expertise that only a long-time insider within a given field can have, and it often comes up in politics, where a wonky person is one who is immersed in the details of policy.
Wonky in its second sense comes from the slightly older noun wonk, which emerged in the United States in the late 20th century as slang for a studious person concerned with minutiae.1 Wonk‘s origins are not known, however. Wonky in the first sense came about in the early 20th century, is British in origin, and has no corresponding noun,2 so it doesn’t appear that the two senses of wonky share a common origin.
Wonkish, also originally American, is synonymous with wonky in that word’s second sense, so it means concerned with minute details, studious, etc. It entered the language around 1990, about two decades later than the second sense of wonky, and perhaps represents an effort to avoid possible confusion caused by wonky‘s two unrelated definitions. Wonkish remains most common in the U.S., but has spread elsewhere over the last few years.
Wonky sometimes means unstable, defective, unreliable, or wobbly—for example:
The asteroid has a slightly wonky orbit that brings it close to Earth roughly every six years. [CBC]
The prettiest real-life example I can think of is the wonky-eyed jewel squid of Australian waters, whose left eye is much larger than its right. [The Ancestor’s Tale, Richard Dawkins]
These include unfamiliar brand names, drinks containing sediment, wonky labels, poor quality print, spelling mistakes, and bottles on display filled to different levels. [Guardian]
Sometimes it means studiously concerned with minutiae:
At the same time the creators aim to give the show enough wonky tidbits to keep political junkies happy. [Co.Create]
Phil Swagel, the wonky assistant secretary for economic policy, emphasized the necessity of being bold and not avoiding addressing the problems for fear of political fallout. [Too Big to Fail, Adrew Ross Sorkin]
How the former OMB director, ostensibly one of the Senate Republicans’ more wonky members, can find this confusing is a mystery. [MSNBC]
And wonkish means the same:
I use my three-minute public comment to make wonkish analyses of the 54-page ordinance that is now in its fifth draft. [Slate]
But it remains to be seen whether wonkish topics and thoughtful op-eds, no matter how sharply displayed, can ever be sexy enough to attract the masses. [Chicago Tribune]
The entire drama was, in many ways, the worst sort of wonkish political brinkmanship, a tedious game of partisan Washington grandstanding. [Irish Times]