1. [obs.]"A piece of coding which provides an address", according to P. Z. Ingerman, who invented thunks in 1961 as a way of binding actual parameters to their formal definitions in Algol-60 procedure calls. If a procedure is called with an expression in the place of a formal parameter, the compiler generates a thunk which computes the expression and leaves the address of the result in some standard location.
2. Later generalized into: an expression, frozen together with its environment, for later evaluation if and when needed (similar to what in techspeak is called a `closure'). The process of unfreezing these thunks is called `forcing'.
3. A stubroutine
, in an overlay programming environment, that loads and jumps to the correct overlay. Compare trampoline
4. People and activities scheduled in a thunklike manner. "It occurred to me the other day that I am rather accurately modeled by a thunk -- I frequently need to be forced to completion." -- paraphrased from a plan file
Historical note: There are a couple of onomatopoeic myths circulating about the origin of this term. The most common is that it is the sound made by data hitting the stack; another holds that the sound is that of the data hitting an accumulator. Yet another suggests that it is the sound of the expression being unfrozen at argument-evaluation time. In fact, 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".