Wonky- A little Information on an Interesting Word

A recent homework assignment for my Cognitive Semantics class involved me choosing a word of low frequency, and investigating its uses via corpora. Here is what I found on wonky.

  To check the etymology, two online sources were used. The first, wordnik.com, states the etymology as probably stemming from the Old English word wancol, meaning ‘unsteady’. The second source, etymonline.com states the same root as probable, but stating the definition as ‘shaky’, or ‘tottering’. The noun, wonk, someone who is studious and hardworking, is most likely derived from this adjective as far back as 1962, or even 1954. The adjective, and topic of this homework, dates back to 1919 according to etymonline.

As the word soldiered on from the early 60s to now, it’s meaning has been stretched a bit. For example, we see instances of the word being used in a literal sense as in “ a wonky denture” from 1976.

Similar meanings were found in 1990 and 1999:

1990: “Don't try to get up. Your vertical hold's rather wonky.”
1999: (Referring to an Alzheimers patient as wonky. This token could also be less literal.) See above for exact quote.

However, the majority of the tokens took on a less literal meaning, one that has strayed from it’s supposed Old English origin of unsteady. Tokens demonstrating the meaning as incorrectly working are seen in:

1961: Old Cap'n's ears may have gone wonky toward the end of his life, but not his memory
1999: Plus there were the wonky science predictions that seemed to pan out.
2010: Democrats largely retreated to the same old wonky language
2011: the culprit could be anything from a corrupted driver to a faulty USB cable to a wonky network setting
2012: Delphine lamented the sad state of the chandelier with its wonky arms and missing prisms and pendalogues.

All of these tokens show the word wonky to be a negative, and a metaphorical one at that. Other tokens show a general negativity, without being as specific.
For example:

2005: Check the white balance settings if color goes wonky.
2011: " They're all a little bit wonky, " Burden says.

These sentences, and indeed others, give the impression of a general dissatisfaction but one without any details as to how. In other words, it is lacking the wobbliness that it used to have.

In perhaps my favorite token, we get a back formation. The original word, wonk, was an adjective meaning ‘wobbly’. From that adjective, the term wonk was created to describe a studious person, or one that was “shaky” or “unreliable” (etymonline.com). In the following token, we see this made back into an adjective, but one with a distinct meaning: “like a wonk.”

2011: As a music writer, he's wonky without being geeky, if I can make that distinction.

This means that wonky can now be said to have two definitions at least. The etymology sources also mention a British-English slang meaning of “effeminate male” or feeble,” all of which we can envision on a college campus, the source for many slang words. One can easily imagine a British classics student reading the word in Beowulf, and then applying it to the nerdy student next to him.

Wonk has no direct collocations, though it does appear to describe people and their parts, more than any one other thing. We see people being referred to as wonky in:

1981:The wonky one's Stockman, " the briefer is saying.
2010: Something to bounce around with the other patients when we compared all the ways our bodies and souls could find to go wonky.

And body parts:

1961: Old Cap'n's ears may have gone wonky toward the end of his life, but not his memory
1976: a missing tooth in a wonky denture
1991: He has a dozen children, a wife with wonky eyes, and they live in one room.
2006: " Relax, Lollie, " said Tim, grinning at me, his wonky eye traveling over the window, 2011: If her heart gets wonky on her, she can call on him anytime, day or night.

Discourse Types
The word wonky appeared in plays, technology magazines, political magazines, and TV news. Indeed, sources as varying as The San Francisco Chronicle, ABC News, Mother Earth, Money magazine, works of Science fiction, and Ploughshares, the literary magazine and journal, all showed tokens of word use, and yet, the word is remarkably uncommon. In fact, I first heard it when my dad used it to describe his lack of balance and coordination—the original meaning— that he had as a result of his stroke medicines.