A friend of mine recently expressed concern about her own use of the word wonky. As a teacher she has to be careful of how she uses words around a diverse population of students and she attempts to be politically correct in how she speaks. The last thing she’d want to do is accidentally offend someone.
This makes me think of the word gyp – for example “That movie was such a gyp. I feel like I got ripped off.” In this sense the word gyp is used negatively and the word is a shortened form of gypsy, who are stereotypically known as thieves and con artists. I also hypothesized that she might have an association in her mind with the word honky, which is a derogatory term for white people.
As it turns out the word wonky, meant as unstable, unreliable, or defective does not appear to be derived from any term meant as a slur or insult toward any particular person or group of people. The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) lists it as a “fanciful formation” first used in the early 20th century as an adjective alongside wonkier and wonkiest.
The word wonk, however, when used to refer to a studious or hard-working person, or more specifically someone who takes an excessive interest in the minor details of political policy, is meant as an insult. In the OED specifically, but not in the US English version, you will also find wonk listed as nautical slang to refer to an incompetent or inexperienced sailor. This word, which is not directly linked to wonky in its origins, was first used in the 1920s. But just to make things confusing, sometimes people use the word wonky or even wonkish to describe someone who is a wonk.
So to return to our original question, is the word wonky insulting to a person or group of people in and of itself? It all comes down to context. If you are using wonky in its more traditional sense as a reference to something unstable, unreliable or defective, you are not necessarily calling to mind a group of politicians squabbling over the minutiae of a new policy. But you might be. I guess it’s just up to you to choose which words you use.