Q: Is “thunk” a new word or did I miss out on this one in my 50-plus years? I hear it used now in reference to thinking. Example: “Who would have thunk?” It’s driving me insane.
A: Yes, the verb form “thunk” is a word, but it’s not a new one. The real question is whether it’s a legitimate word or not.
The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.) describes it as a “nonstandard” past tense and past participle of the verb “think.”
Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.) calls it “dialect” for the past tense (“He thunk it looked funny”) and past participle (“I’ve thunk the same thing”).
However, I feel the Oxford English Dictionary gets to the heart of the matter by defining “thunk” as jocular dialect.
The OED‘s first published reference for the usage (spelled “thuongk’) is from an 1876 glossary of words in the mid-Yorkshire dialect in Britain.
But here’s a more interesting citation from James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake (1939): “I then tuk my takenplace lying down, I thunk I told you.”
Joyce apparently liked the usage. He liked it enough to use “thunk” not only as a verb but also as a noun meaning a thinking session. Here’s a citation from Ulysses (1922): “Have a good old thunk.”
Cassell’s Dictionary of Slang says “thunk” is of US origin, but Eric Partridge’s A Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English says it’s Canadian. I lean toward Yorkshire, the source of the first citation in the OED.
Interestingly, this “nonstandard” usage is older than the “standard” use of “thunk” as a noun for a dull, hollow sound, or as a verb for making that sound. The audible “thunk” dates from the mid-20th century.
So is it OK to use “thunk” as a past tense or past participle of “think”? If you think it’s the legitimate past tense or past participle, no. But if you’re trying to be funny, yes.
Even so, “Who would have thunk?” and similar expressions are getting a bit tired these days. It might be time to have a good old thunk in search of a fresher way to be funny.