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.
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.”
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.