Bill Casselman

Increase your vocabulary by learning less-known English words denoting laughter

At the Wording Desk

I spend the summer mostly at the sea. Perhaps a more forthright confession is: I spend the summer mostly at sea. For it is during the estival season of the rolling year that I read my neglected, confusing or incomprehensible email and am often found giggling in helpless merriment beside an empty decanter of port placed daily on my computer desk by Medea, the new maid we’ve hired to look after the children.

But giggling does not seem a manly mode of laughter. Needing to find more bounteous laughing words, nouns and verbs roistering in a guffaw-flung orbit of buoyant exuberance, I set forth among my foxed tomes and leathered volumes in search of synonyms for jollity and mirth. In obedience to my gentle nature, I was not seeking phrases forecasting splanchnic rupture as in “I busted a gut, laughing.”

Down through glum eons of word-making, stern coiners of English, the sad, bearded compilers of dictionaries, have had, in general, little use for laughter or its synonyms. Not really British, don’t you know?

No jesting Pilate I, to ask Jesus, “What is truth?” I’m just a laugher, not a philosopher. Although the pickings were leaner than bacon bits after a hungry pig-fuckers’ convention, I did uncover a few delights and herewith present them in my usual becoming stoop of modesty accompanied by a delicate and highly commendable regard for the strictures of modern good taste.

Achortling I Shall Go
Among the scant but merry verbs and happy nouns, chortling has a pleasing sonic rotundity. It was invented by a famous writer. The Reverend Charles Lutwidge Dodgson (1832-1898) coined the verb to chortle as a blend of chuckle and snort. There is no dampening, namby-pamby snigger in a chortle. It’s the explosive way a bold stud might laugh.

The Rev. was better known by his pen name, Lewis Carroll, who came up with the happy mixture in one of his greatest nonsense poems “Jabberwocky,” found in the sequel to Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, namely in Through the Looking-Glass. Carroll is notable as a dexterous wizard of word play.

Some early dandy philologists decided to call such terms “portmanteau words,” because, like the Victorian suitcase of yore used to transport greatcoats and over-garments, they “ported” several “manteaux” of different words. Har-dee-har-har. This overly cute label has mercifully declined in use.

Boffo may mean ‘a hearty laugh,’ although its use in showbiz was first as an adjective. A boffo sight gag in vaudeville was one that brought a good laugh from a live audience. From Italian buffo ‘comical, burlesque’ a boffo is still an unrestrained laugh of boisterous uproar. It is likely the Italian adjective chuckled into English from opera, where one of the modes of operatic composition is still referred to as opera buffa ‘comic opera.’ The word’s extension boffola may also be used as an adjective and a noun.

One exceedingly rare word in each of my little columns is a request of many readers. So here it is, this one a medical adjective. A hypothalamic hamartoma is a rare benign tumor located at the base of the brain in an area called the hypothalamus. One of the tumour’s symptoms in young people may be various forms of epilepsy. One of these is gelastic seizure, during which inappropriate laughter results. Gelastic ‘causing laughter, serving the function of laughter’ was borrowed from Greek γελαστικός gelastikos ‘pertaining to laughter’ from Greek γελᾶν gelan ‘to laugh.’ English derivatives are not common but the root was active in classical Greek. Consider the standard ancient Greek word for clown γελωτοποιός gelōtopoiós literally ‘laughter-maker’ as used by a writer like the Attic historian Xenophon (circa 430–354 BC).

Howls of horselaughs, even volleyed peals of snorts by yockmeisters and yucksters, are macho too. But titters and sniggers are not, teeny chirpings with a hand held over the offending mouth in its guilty crime of expressing human enjoyment.

The sour-jowled shushers of laughter always remind me of H.L Mencken’s excellent definition of a puritan. The sage of Baltimore wrote that “a puritan is someone with the haunting fear that somebody else, somewhere, might be enjoying themselves.”

When a person states, “This is no laughing matter,” look into their constipated fist of a face and you will determine that very little in their burdensome passage here on earth has brought forth mirth. These doleful, bovine drones have instead endured most of life chewing the bitter cud of rancour. Then let them! May frowns rot their brows; may interior fury consume their innards; may their twisted faces make children scream.

Of a summer evening I shall be sitting on the back porch with friends, sipping some pleasant, unpretentious French picnic wine, say a Pouilly-Fuissé, and laughing with the laughers, in the bliss of a mirthquake.

Bill Casselman copyight 2016

July 21, 2016

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The Laughing Cavalier, Frans Hals 1582-1666 CE

Lotsa Yocks in Odd Laughter Words