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What does "Wonky" Mean?

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  • Written By: Michael Pollick
  • Edited By: Bronwyn Harris
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  • Last Modified Date: 09 September 2016
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In the older sense of the word, wonky means to be unbalanced or unstable, especially when applied to one's mental or emotional state. It could also apply to a physical instability, such as a loose wheel on an old cart or a precariously balanced load. One might say a mentally unstable relative has become a little wonky in recent years, or the steering wheel of a car has become wonkier since an accident. "Wonky" can often be used interchangeably with "wobbly" when describing a physical instability, or along with "crazy," "daft," or "batty" when describing a person's altered mental state.

Wonky in the sense of physical or mental imbalance is said to date back several centuries, most likely coined in England. Some sources suggest that author Roald Dahl used wonky as the basis of one of his best-known characters, the eccentric candy factory owner Willy Wonka. Wonka's quirky meanderings and curious mutterings most certainly meet the criteria of "wonky." "Wonky" is often applied to the behavior of genuine eccentrics, as opposed to those with more serious mental conditions. Wonky behavior is not necessarily dangerous behavior.

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In a more modern sense of the work, "wonky" could be applied to very detail-oriented or self-motivated workaholics. The term "wonk" may have been used originally to describe an especially studious college student, but it eventually expanded to include politicians and corporate leaders who become utterly consumed by details or policy. A political wonk, for example, may not leave the office until the wording of a proposed bill is precisely right. A business or legal wonk may not sleep until the final lines of a contract have been thoroughly reviewed. Such wonky behavior may have professional advantages, but it can create the appearance of an unhealthy obsession with perfection or details.

Former president Bill Clinton's all-night work sessions with equally driven aides could clearly be described as wonky. Sometimes the synergy of working with other detail-oriented co-workers can create a competitive atmosphere where each person tries to be wonkier than the others. While wonky behavior often produces significant results, some question the value of sacrificing a personal life for professional gain.

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