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What is the proper usage of the word thunk? According to Merriam-Webster, it is

dialect past and past participle of think

Can it be used in a formal context? Is "Who would have thunk?" different than "Who would have thought?"

Any examples from news, literature or other known references is welcome.

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It is very informal, not to be used in any kind of writing or speech in any straightforward sense. –  Mitch Jan 22 '12 at 14:29

5 Answers 5

up vote 4 down vote accepted

Thunk occurs as the past tense and past participle of think in some regional dialects and is occasionally used in a jokey kind of way. In ‘Finnegan’s Wake’, Joyce wrote 'I then tuk my taken~place lying down, I thunk I told you’ and in ‘Ulysses' he used it as a noun: ‘Have a good old thunk’. It has, however, never been used in Standard English and its use would not make for effective communication in formal writing.

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I should also point out that the word "thunk" can be used as a noun in the context of computer programming. –  George Edison Jan 23 '12 at 5:52
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Imagine someone tells you something that you knew already and assumed was obvious to everyone else. You can convey your reaction by using the rhetorical question: "Who would have thunk it?"

There are numerous uses of the expression on the Guardian website. Two examples:

  • Newsflash, films are made for profit. Who would have thunk it?

  • Alcohol plus football equals fighting, apparently. Who'd have thunk it?

I would recommend against using "thunk" in any other circumstances.

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As stated in the previous answers, thunk is informal. However, thunk as a noun is a legitimate computer-science term, derived from the the informal term's meaning of "thought of".

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I'm not convinced the computer usage derives from the verb "think". I think it's probably more by association with words like clunky, kludge, bodge, etc. –  FumbleFingers Jan 22 '12 at 10:56
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CS term! Who'd have thunk it? –  Kris Jan 22 '12 at 13:12
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Descartes thunk, therefore he wuz. –  FumbleFingers Jan 22 '12 at 14:24
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@FumbleFingers: ...according to the inventors, it was coined after they realized (in the wee hours after hours of discussion) that the type of an argument in Algol-60 could be figured out in advance with a little compile-time thought, simplifying the evaluation machinery. In other words, it had ‘already been thought of’; thus it was christened a thunk, which is “the past tense of ‘think’ at two in the morning”. catb.org/jargon/html/T/thunk.html –  Nate Eldredge Jan 22 '12 at 21:04
    
@Nate Eldredge: Can't argue with that! The term still had to catch on/remain current though, so it seems possible to me those associations I posited may be/have been a factor. For that reason I'll leave my comment there, but thanks for the "inside story". –  FumbleFingers Jan 23 '12 at 0:49

Did somebody thunk you in the head?

Just kidding. It's a good question. Allow for a generalized answer.

Personally, as one who appreciates dimension, I favor the use of colorful language, or at least within a context which grants of a certain license. Certainly not all do. So yes, as Mr. England cautions, the first rule of "proper usage" in this respect is certainly the exercise of sound judgment as to just how formal the context is. And, no doubt, by formal he means not intended as art.

In any venue of life, writing being no exception, the ability to think outside of the box is among the most appreciable of traits. And certainly the use of terms like thunk tend to fall into that classification. Art in particular though ---of which writing has long been king--- isn't mere or generic or even exceptional ability in the sense of cause and effect, but is rather demonstrable ability, the kind of ability which cannot help but show itself en route to its effect. This unavoidable fact invites of the scourge to any art from, to wit, vanity.

So, in my not always humble opinion, I should think that an approximation to rule number two, that is, toward your notion of proper usage. I almost wish I could say that your goal should be to make sure your creative expression never makes the reader think of you. But that, as I intend, would contradict everything I just said. It's unavoidably okay for the reader, at intervals, to think about you and/or your abilities as a writer. What's not okay is for that to be your leading objective as a writer... ever. The thoughtful reader can smell that. And it stinks. So sure, make use of all the "dimension" your mind can auto-generate, but only if it helps paint something other than a self-portrait. Foshizzle?

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I have often used the phrase 'Some people think, and some people thunk.' where thunk is a verb with synonyms such as flunk (which, co-incidentally, rhymes with thunk), fail etc. This usage also makes a witty double pun with thunk ( flunk,fail ) in reference to thunk ( a flat hollow sound ). Thunking could therefore be defined as not thinking.

Language is just so much more than communication.

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