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August 18th, 2004

Who'da thunk / a or an SST? / horrific

by Barbara Wallraff

Mary Montgomery, of Grand Blanc, Mich., writes: “Is there really a word ‘thunk,’ as in ‘Who would have thunk?’ I have heard TV newscasters say it several times. At first I thought they were being silly, but not so.”

Dear Mary: In recent newspaper articles I turned up for you, both the mystery writer Sue Grafton and a senior economic analyst for the Philadelphia Federal Reserve Bank are quoted as saying “thunk” like that. Newspaper reporters and columnists use the word too. Maybe they are being silly -- just a bit -- or else folksy. Dictionaries call the word (when it doesn’t refer to a thudding sound) jocular, humorous, informal, nonstandard or dialect.

“Who’da thunk?” is the way I saw the question most often rendered in print. And you have to admit, that’s very different in tone from “Who would have thought?” Here’s a sample use of the latter, from the Los Angeles Times: “Who would have thought my peripatetic search for the perfect mille-feuille would take me to Minocqua?” (Translation: The reporter was able to satisfy his craving for French pastry in Wisconsin’s Northwoods.) And here’s a sample use of the former, from the Boston Herald: “Borkowski outdueled Curt Schilling -- who’da thunk it? -- in their respective seven innings.” (Translation: Sports talk!) There, in a nutshell (and a pastry shell and a dugout), is the difference.

Josh Mandel, of Albany, N.Y., writes: “When preceding an acronym with the word ‘a’ or ‘an,’ what rule applies? If I am, for instance, writing about the SST, would I use ‘an SST’ (which assumes that the acronym is pronounced ‘ess ess tee’), or ‘a SST’ (which assumes that the acronym is pronounced ‘supersonic transport’)?”

Dear Josh: Readers usually “hear” in their heads what they see in front of them. So if you want people to assume that what you’ve written is pronounced “supersonic transport,” that’s the way to write it -- and, of course, use “a”: “a supersonic transport.” But if you’ve written “SST” or anything else that begins with a vowel sound, it takes “an.” Never mind whether the first letter is a vowel; the point is the vowel sound. Anything that begins with a consonant sound takes “a.” So “an SST” but “a European-made SST.”

Just in case you’d enjoy annoying your friends and loved ones as much as I sometimes do mine: “SST” is, more precisely, an abbreviation or an initialism, not an acronym. It’s true that acronyms are words formed from the initial letters of other words. But instead of being pronounced as letters, they’re pronounced as words -- like “radar,” from “RAdio Detection And Ranging,” and “scuba,” from “Self-Contained Underwater Breathing Apparatus.”

Terry Hofman, of Seattle, writes: “What’s with the use of ‘horrific’ in modern media? I used it once in sixth grade (35 years ago) and was reprimanded by my teacher for making up the word.”

Dear Terry: I have enormous respect for the job teachers do -- but nobody’s perfect. You didn’t invent “horrific.” I have a little 1836 Dictionary for Primary Schools, by Noah Webster, that includes the word. It defines “horrific” as “causing horror or dread.” And according to the Oxford English Dictionary, “horrific” or, earlier, “horrifick” has been part of the English language since the 1600s.

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

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