October 25, 2009


Maria Von Trapp of

The Trapp Family Singers.

"Proudly I talked about

someone being a "thunkard"



nonce word



thunkard: an individual whose mental exertions have reduced him or her to a stupor

Early 20C. United States

From Bingo Boys and Poodle-Fakers: A Curious Compendium of Historical Slang.

Collected from the Best Authorities. London: The Folio Society, 2007, 102.


From "Are You Out Of Your Mind?" by Clifford C. Kuhn, M.D.

One reason I have trouble trusting myself is that I've had a lifelong addiction to thinking. Like any addict, I have become unbalanced. As certainly as drinking too much gets me drunk , thinking too much gets me thunk . As a drunkard I'm not likely to be thinking clearly, but as a thunkard , I'm definitely thinking too much to trust my instincts. To me, thunkeness is nothing more than the state of being afraid of all the possibilities in everything.

Dr. Clifford Kuhn is both a psychiatrist and a comedian. He is professor of psychiatry at the University of Louisville School of Medicine. His current book is entitled The Fun Factor: Unleashing the Power of Humor at Home and on the Job. www.kentuckianahealthfitness.com

From The Story of the Trapp Family Singers by Maria Augusta Trapp:

I invented a method all my own, in which I wanted to apply what I had learned about one word to as many like-sounding words as I could find. This proved later to be fatally wrong, and it still haunts my English of today. For instance, I had learned: freeze-frozen. I wrote underneath in my precious little notebook: "squeeze-squozen" and "sneeze-snozen" Proudly I talked about someone being a "thunkard", explaining wordily that I had thought if drinking much makes a person a drunkard, so thinking much, like that professor I had in mind makes him a "thunkard."

Maria Augusta Von Trapp. The Story of the Trapp Family Singers. Philadelphia, PA: Lippincott, 1949.

And finally, this light verse by Walter G. Doty from the April 5, 1916 edition of The Albany Evening Journal:

Why not?

If a female Duke is a Duchess,

Would a female spook be a sputches?

And if a male goose is a gander.

Would a male moose be a mander?

If water you freeze Is frozen.

Is the maiden you squeeze, then be squozen?

If a thing you break is broken.

Would a thing that you take be token?

If the plural of child is children.

Would the plural of wild be wildren?

If a number of cows are cattle.

Would a number of bows be battle?

If a man who makes plays is a playwright,

Would a man who makes hay be a haywright?

If a person who fails is a failure,

Would a person who quails be a quallure?

If the apple you bite is bitten,

Would the battle you fight be fitten?

And if a young cat is a kitten.

Then would a young rat be a ritten?

If a person who spends is a spend thrift,

Would a person who lends be a lend thrift?

If drinking too much makes a drunkard,

"Would thinking too much make a thunkard?

But why pile on the confusion?

Still, I'd like to ask in conclusion:

If a chap from New York's a New Yorker,

Would a fellow from Cork be Corker?

—Walter G. Doty in The Albany Evening Journal, Wednesday Evening, April 5, 1916.



Because our standard dictionaries have failed to address the word thunkard, a word ringing with notes of playful meaning, it falls to me to assay an explanation of how the root thunk and the suffix -ard interplay to make meaning.


First, thunk, which the Oxford English Dictionary describes as the "dialectical and jocular past tense and past participle of think, verb."

Note the markers "dialectic" and "jocular," the latter defined as "Of the nature of, or containing, a joke; said or done in joke; comic, humorous, funny."

Before we get to thunk in its modern function as a jocular word, we should first note its entrance into English, as a dialectical word. The earliest known citation in print of thunk came in 1876 with a scholar's notation about thunk's frequency of use the dialect of New Yorkshire: "Think.. Thuongk in the past [tense], in which tense it is of constant occurrence."

Thereafter, thunk took to the motley with non-stop jocularity, either as the past tense of the verb think or as a noun meaning "a think." Its first appearance in the jocular occurred in 1887, as a verb, in a New Orleans journal titled The Lantern in the sentence: "Who'd a thunk it?" The earliest citation of thunk as a noun came to us much later, in 1922, from the pen of James Joyce, who wrote "Have a good old thunk" in his novel Ulysses.

Eventually, speakers began to exploit thunk's onomatopoetic sound of a collision:

• as a noun, meaning "a sound of a dull blow or impact,"

• as a transitive verb, meaning "Make a thunk; fall or land with a thunk,"

• as an adverb, as in "with a thunk," and

• as an interjection: "Thunk!"


Now, on to the suffix -ard. The OED records -ard's arrival in Middle English words derived from Old French in such words as bastard, coward, mallard, wizard. Then it moved on, rising in its own English voice as a namer of things, e.g. placard and standard (in the sense of flag).

Eventually, users amped-up the energy of -ard by employing it as a suffix stating "one who does to excess, or who does what is discreditable," as we see in such snarlers as buzzard, drunkard, laggard, and sluggard.

As you can observe, -ard keeps hard, colloquial company. Witness again the negative human traits in coward, bastard, coward, drunkard, laggard, and sluggard. Each word denotes the absence of virtue, which Aristotle saw as the golden mean between, on the one hand, vices of deficiency, coward, and, on the other, vices of excess, drunkard.

Quite simply, -ard is the perfect suffix for thunkard, "an individual whose mental exertions have reduced him to a stupor," one so slumped and retrograded that his mind cannot even reach for the standard past tense form of the verb thought, defaulting, instead, to the doltish form thunk.

We might also try to imagine (with a stretch) the process of intense thought magically transmogrifying itself into a physical object, specifically into a big airborn bolus gone ballistic, which swings around and thunks the thinker on the noggin, thereby sending her mind into thunkardy.


Now, let's investigate the sounds generated by thunkard (beyond its self-contained, self-evident thunk). I'm talking about the u in thunk and the r and d in -ard. The best source for playfully idiosyncratic yet on-the-mark essays on the sounds of the alphabet is Roy Blount Jr.'s book, Alphabet Juice: The Energies, Gists, and Spirits of Letters, Words, and Combinations Thereof; Their Roots, Bones, Innards, Piths, Pips, and Secret Parts, Tinctures, Tonics, and Essences; With Examples of their Usage Foul and Savory. (I hope you enjoyed reading that subtitle as much as I enjoyed typing it.)



The sound that comes from deepest down — the grunt vowel, the dull thud vowel, the vowel we may utter when punched in the stomach—is the flat u-sound. It's not quite where when we think, saying to ourselves Hmmmmm. . . . . When we can't come up with a word, we temporize by grunting uh or um. And when we say something obvious, people say: Duh. Yes is unh-hunh, no, unh-unh. (Or, if you eschew nasal seasoning, uh-huh and uh-uh.) Come again is hunh? (Or huh?) (320)


[There are] the er, ar, or sounds in are, earth, earnest, origin, hormone, urge, urtext and "murder your darlings."

There's dog-growl: rrrrrr; and pirates' favorite letter: arrrrr. And roar, which I heard the poet David Wagoner describe as "obviously from a word before language." (248)


Can we imagine . . . thud or clod ending in any other letter?

Do I mean to say that every word ending in a d is pejorative? Good God, no. Consider bed, wood, bud, and food. And d begins dear, darling, dove, and daddy. But you know how how well s works in suspicious and l in lullaby? That's how effective d is in heavy downer words: dull, drugged, drudgery, dunce, dump, dunk, duffer, dust, dud, dolt, doddering, dowdy, doleful, dunderhead, dung, doo-doo, damn, doldrums, dead. (70)

From Roy Blount Jr. Alphabet Juice. New York: Sarah Crichton Books, 2008.


Adding to what we have said about the meanings generated lexically through the apt mating of thunk and -ard, we can now add the following commentary on the sounds in thunkard, based upon (admittedly) selected comments from Roy Blount Jr.

Passing over the lithe th, which Blount does not address, nor will I because of its thin contribution to thunkard, we go to the sonic u by imagining a thunkard in an extreme funk having been being reduced to uttering nothing much more than duh, uh-huh, uh-uh, and hunh[?] We can also hear in thunkard the illiterate r from pre-language utterances, as well as the dark d, lead consonant in such "downer words" as dunce, dolt, doddering, and dunderhead — each of which, take note, could serve as a synonym for thunkard.

That's all, except for this:

If twittering too much makes a twittard,

Does posting too much makes a postard?

And if texting too much makes a textard,

Would blogging too much make a bloggard?



  1. Thunkard is a fun word. Thanks for deconstructing this. Since your last posting related to the number four, I'm on a numerical track, Is the "u" sound in thunkard related in any way to the word for one in French, "un". It sounds like "uhn" with the "uh" predominent then trailing off with "n" sound. Sorry, I digressed into sounds instead of words.

  2. Here's the OED Online Word of the Day for Thurs. Nov. 5, 2009:
    stinkard [f. STINK v. + -ARD.]
    1. One who stinks. Formerly often used as a term of abuse. Now rare or Obs.
    2. A name given to various ill-smelling animals.

    One more word for the -ard list. — Bloggin' John