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March 9th, 2005

Me and Dad or Dad and me? / wonk / spanking new

by Barbara Wallraff

Conni Johnson, of Farmington Hills, Mich., writes: “Please settle a dispute between my 11-year-old son and me. He always says ‘me and Dad.’ I was taught it is proper to put the other person’s name first, as in ‘Dad and me.’ He is convinced his way is right, but I believe it sounds rude. Please advise.”

Dear Conni: I’m with you. Nonetheless, it’s not a grammatical mistake to refer to yourself first. Every now and then it’s even a good idea to go first, for the sake of meaning. For instance: “He threw the Frisbee to me and my brother, who was busy playing with the dog.” Every now and then, similarly, it’s a good thing to go through a doorway ahead of a parent with a baby in a stroller -- but that’s so you can hold the door. Unless you have some such reason, putting yourself first is, as you say, rude.

Carlos Nunez, of St. Louis, writes: “During the Clinton years I noticed the term ‘wonk’ (as in ‘policy wonk’) in newspapers and magazines. But I couldn’t find it in a dictionary. Can you shed light on this verbiage? Is its half-life already over?”

Dear Carlos: It might be time for you to get a new dictionary. All six of the current American dictionaries I have include “wonk.” The word means “someone who studies an issue or a subject excessively.” In fact, my databases tell me, “wonk” has been appearing in U.S. newspapers for fully 20 years now. Since dictionaries have traditionally relied on printed sources, it takes them a little while to catch up. But I have an out-of-date dictionary that was published in 1992, the year when Bill Clinton was first elected president, and even it includes “wonk.”

“Wonk” is still current. I suspect the reason you’re not noticing it the way you used to is that it has become so familiar. Recent newspaper stories talk about not only “policy wonks” but also “weather wonks,” “anti-wonks” and just plain “wonks.”

Manfred Tatzmann, of Lansing, Mich., writes: “Where did the usage of the word ‘spanking,’ as in the oft-used phrase ‘brand spanking new,’ come from? What exactly are we spanking, and why? Is this a form of word abuse? Shouldn’t someone be notified?”

Dear Manfred: Thank goodness, you’ve brought this to the attention of the proper authority. And don’t worry -- no words were harmed in the making of this phrase. “Spanking” in “brand spanking new” is actually a different word from the one in “You’re going to get a spanking if you don’t stop that right now!” The two are homographs (they’re written the same way) and also homophones (they sound the same) -- like “bow” (the front part of a ship) and “bow” (to bend at the waist). But they’ve come to us by different routes.

The word you’re asking about is probably related to the Danish verb “spanke,” which means “to strut.” It entered English in the 1600s. This is the word we now use in phrases like “a spanking pace” and “a spanking breeze” -- as well as in “spanking new.” As for the kind of “spanking” that means “smacking,” people who study word histories think this word has its origin in the sound of spanking, but that has yet to be proved.

© Copyright 2003 by Barbara Wallraff. Reprints require prior permission. All rights reserved.

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