Delivering American University's news and views since 1925. | Sunday, January 21, 2018

When the wonk jokes don’t stop

Ignorance of the meaning of words hurts society

When the wonk jokes don’t stop

The phrase has become notorious across campus and among students. Plastered on shuttles, featured in promo videos, and splattered across an award for someone as distinguished as Malala Yousafzai, the classic campus phrase is something all AU students keep with them long past graduation. That infamous word is wonk, or “know” spelled backward.

An AU student may or may not be able to say what a wonk is, but they will definitely make jokes about it. Since 2008, the word “wonk” has been at the center of the University’s branding campaign. While it may have seen success in some ways, students make fun of it constantly. Upon stepping onto campus for Welcome Week, all I’ve heard is people make fun of the admissions strategy and even freshmen who have been here not quite two months are cynical. Rumours are abound of the current phasing out of the phrase, though its placement on shuttle buses may be around for a while. For so many of us, especially who are new, making fun of wonk is the most accessible part of campus culture.

Making fun of wonk isn’t a bad thing. In fact, it can make for really funny moments between all levels of students. What I find problematic is that so many AU students think that the word was invented by AU’s marketing team. Wonk is not at all unique to AU.

Merriam Webster defines wonk as, “a person preoccupied with arcane details or procedures in a specialized field.” The most common iteration of wonk is in reference to those that work deeply in D.C. politics, called “policy wonks”. But, the word can describe different professions, like “physics wonks” or “economics wonks.” For some students though, this original meaning has been lost.

This lack of information about wonk is just one example of a world that is increasingly disregarding the power and purpose of words. The loss of a word’s meaning, or the ignorance of its history, is endemic to society right now. People are speaking with little thought and less precision. What does ‘literally’ even mean anymore? How many times do you say it in a sentence? What about ‘like?’ Both of those words entered into casual speech, and are said so often now in any context that they don’t really mean anything at all. Between the internet, slang and euphemisms that vary from place to place, it’s no wonder none of us quite knows what the other is saying.

Hearing time and time again, especially from my fellow freshmen, that they don’t really know what wonk means is a problem. Is the joke still a joke if you don’t even really know what you’re saying? Choosing to use language that you may not really understand means that the words are losing something. The meaning of words is increasingly being desensitized from our culture, but communication is more important than ever. Even a joke about AU’s marketing schemes has power in our language. We all need to think a little more before we say the first thought in our heads, and if we really know what we’re saying.

Mean what you say when you say it. Don’t stumble over yourself trying to explain exactly what the phrase meant. Impact supersedes intent, so truly understanding what you’re saying is important. We see this loss of meaning when supporters of Trump claim he “didn’t mean it” when he makes outrageous comments. The words that people say, whether you’re the president or not, do have power. Using words purposefully and avoiding the desensitization of meaning are the first steps to a better discourse. Make the effort to make your wonk joke mean something, and definitely make sure you know what it actually means first.

Words can plunge us into nuclear war, or save someone’s life. Words are what can unify or divide us. So keep making wonk jokes, and scoffing at transparent marketing strategies. But just remember, everything you say has meaning. Make sure you mean it.

Samantha McAllister is a freshman in the School of International Service and a columnist for The Eagle.


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