Word Improvisation

LAST fall Richard Brookhiser published an article in American Heritage called "How Smart Should a President Be?" Not long after, pundits and spin doctors were focusing on the intellect -- or perceived lack thereof -- of leading candidates. None of the front-runners, apparently, is ideal. George W. Bush has been labeled an empty suit by opponents and is regarded by some critics as no rocket scientist; both phrases are left over from the 1980s. Bill Bradley, however, is charged with being too "cerebral": a tedious poindexter, instead of a snappy smart cookie or a clever smart apple. And Al Gore has long been called a policy wonk, which may be good or bad, depending on your sense of executive priorities.

applied to students who are too smart to be popular, has been a schooltime favorite since the mid-1980s. It's got nothing to do with Rear Admiral John M. Poindexter, President Ronald Reagan's national-security adviser: Poindexter is both a brainy junior scientist in the Felix the Cat cartoon and a maladroit student in the film Revenge of the Nerds (1984). Related to the poindexter is the brainiac, originally Superman's green-skinned alien foe, who first appeared in 1958; the word neatly combines brainy and maniac (standard mad-scientist adjectives) with overtones of Eckert and Mauchly's Univac, a much-publicized computer of the era. But whence comes this wonk?

A good question. Britain's Royal Navy had its wonks in the 1920s: "new cadets or new midshipmen of questionable ability." (A possible etymology, the adjective wonky, meaning "tipsy, unsteady, unsound," carries nuances that haven't been fully Americanized.) Following a few intermediate unflattering turns, by the 1960s wonk was the word at Harvard for the kind of people that the late Alabama Governor George Wallace eventually decried as "pointy-headed intellectuals." The typical policy wonk lives for policy issues likely to induce drowsiness in others.

Norman Mailer alluded to John Kennedy's "hard Irish smarts" in 1967; that economical word for "intelligence or sharpness of wits" soon swept the field. Earlier slangsters relied on terms such as savvy and gray matter to refer to the elusive quality often called IQ. Any anatomist can tell you that gray matter perfectly describes the brownish-gray tissue of the brain and spinal cord; the phrase had entered the medical vocabulary by 1840 and, with the rise of public awareness of what a working brain looks like, had taken on the less formal, metaphorical sense of "intellect or intelligence" by 1899.

A noun, a verb, and an adjective, savvy is seemingly indispensable to business and communications journalism, from which it has been propelled into standard American English. Savvy is broader than smarts, shrewder than know-how. It probably came into English from the Spanish saber, "to know," and often used to appear in stories of the West in the form ¡no sabe!, which sounds like no savvy to the monolingual English-speaker. In English no savvy means "I/he/she/it/they don't/doesn't know/understand!" Savvy first turned up in the late eighteenth century, but the spelling with a "v" got a boost in the 1870s from Bret Harte, the popular author of "The Luck of Roaring Camp" and dozens of other California tales.

Interest in the contents of politicians' noggins (long ago the word referred to a kind of drinking mug) is hardly new; the electorate has always liked candidates who use the old bean without being too obvious about it. Adlai Stevenson was considered an egghead in his 1952 race with Dwight Eisenhower -- a dubious distinction that didn't help him that November. LBJ's claim that Gerald Ford wasn't smart enough to "chew gum and walk at the same time" is now secure in the treasury of political invective. But of course, as David Hess, a state representative in New Hampshire, observed recently, when it comes to politics "people are suspicious of the four-point-O, straight-A guy." Hess may be right; maybe a rocket scientist can figure out why.

J. E. Lighter is the editor of the Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang.

Illustration by Marc Rosenthal.

The Atlantic Monthly; March 2000; Word Improvisation - 00.03; Volume 285, No. 3; page 120.