9 Ways to Laugh
There are many different kinds of laughter. There’s the kind that leaves us clutching our bellies and gasping for air, and there’s kind that barely escapes our lips in restrained titters. The chortle, defined as “a gleeful chuckle,” falls somewhere in the middle. This term was coined by the beloved and whimsical wordsmith Lewis Carroll in his 1871 novel, Through the Looking-Glass, as a blend, or portmanteau, of the words chuckle and snort.
A guffaw is a loud, unrestrained burst of laughter; as a verb, it means “to laugh in a loud and boisterous manner.” The word is of Scottish origin and is thought to be imitative of the sound of such laughter. This word entered English in the early 1700s, around the same time as the similar but short-lived gawf, which means “to laugh loudly.”
When delivering a punch line, comedic performers want nothing more than to elicit a boff. This term, which means “a loud hearty laugh” in the above example, can also mean “to cause to be overcome with laughter” and “a joke or humorous line.” Boff arose in the entertainment industry in the mid-1900s, probably as a shortening of the word boffo meaning “a joke or punch line.” The similar-sounding Italian word buffo translates to “funny; comical” and shares a root with the term buffoon.
Far from a belly laugh or a hearty guffaw, a titter is a nervous or self-conscious laugh. To titter is “to laugh in a restrained, self-conscious, or affected way as from nervousness or in ill-suppressed amusement.” The origin of this word is unclear, but etymologists point to the Swedish term tittra meaning “to giggle,” as well as the word tittle meaning “to whisper” or, more specifically “to tell on or whisper gossip” as possible linguistic ancestors.
Before English speakers were tittering, they were giggling. A giggle is “a silly spasmodic laugh, especially with short, repeated gasps and titters, as from juvenile or ill-concealed amusement or nervous embarrassment.” The word is thought to be imitative in origin, echoing the sound of such laughter. Be careful not to confuse a case of the giggles with a case of the giggs; the latter has been used to describe a mouth disease in horses.
The origins of the word yuk, as in “The audience really yukked it up at the movie,” are a bit of a mystery. The similar-sounding yock, theater slang for “a laugh,” appeared in the US in the late 1930s. The comedic yuk, sometimes spelled yuck, meaning “to laugh or joke” appeared in the 1960s, right around the time that English speakers began using it as an exclamation of disgust.
The word snicker, meaning “to laugh in a half-suppressed, indecorous or disrespectful manner,” has been around since the late 1600s. Like many words on this list, this one is thought to be imitative of the sound of laughter. It is one of several words beginning with s used to refer to laughter more mocking and suppressed in nature than gleeful and boisterous; others include snirtle, snigger, and sneer.
If the words we use to describe laughter are any indication, it would seem that a good episode of laughter reduces us to our animal natures, leaving us howling, snorting, and roaring. The term heehaw entered English in the early 1800s as a term for the loud braying sound a donkey makes and shortly thereafter picked up the sense of “a loud laugh reminiscent of a neighing horse.”
If you (or someone you know) consistently turns heads with your stentorian laughter, you may be a cachinnator. To cachinnate is “to laugh loudly or immoderately.” The term is thought to be imitative in origin, and can be traced to the Latin cachinnāre. The similar-sounding cackle, meaning “to laugh in a shrill, broken manner” is etymologically unrelated to cachinnate. It first entered English as a word for the sound a hen or goose makes, later picking up a sense of “to laugh in a shrill, broken manner.”