Thursday, June 12, 2014

Tangential Laughter

Tangential Laughter

This week’s words and idioms all have some connection to the idea of humor or laughter. Though some may instead inspire a wrinkled brow, I have hopes they’ll inspire a cackle, titter, or guffaw.

When we try a joke that doesn’t have the desired affect, we refer to this as laying an egg. This term was born in the late 1800s. Its origin is due to the fact that hens make a big deal of laying an egg, with much squawking & clucking, though their peers appear unimpressed.

In the 1570s the word corny came to English from the Sanskrit word jirna, which meant old & worn out. Corny can mean old fashioned, mawkish & sentimental, uncool due to a failed attempt at coolness, trite, or an attempt at humor that falls flat.

The word comedy entered English in the late 1300s, through French from the Greek komodios, meaning village singer. Though the village singer might have sung any sort of song, somehow the funny ones have lived on etymologically.

Centuries ago when Romans were doing what Romans did, that included plowing the fields. When a farmer was unable to plow in a straight line, his work was referred to as de lire, meaning off track, out of line. In the 1590s this Latin term made its way into English as delirious & delirium, as someone experiencing delirium is off-track and has a tough time returning to his/her plow to the furrow.

And what’s funnier than a pun? Entering the language in 1826, the funny-bone is exactly that. Not only does a good whack on the elbow make us feel funny, the elbow is positioned at the end of the humerus. Ha! And again I say Ha!

This next one isn’t really about a laughter-related word, but I’m including it because upon reading this etymology, I laughed. In the sport of horse-racing, skittish horses can often be calmed by placing a goat in their stall (who knew?). In the early 1900s, nefarious jockeys would steal their opponent’s horse’s calming goat in hopes of increasing the edginess of the opponent’s horse while increasing the likelihood the nefarious jockey might win. This practice gave birth to the idiom getting one’s goat.

In the 1630s, the term happy as a clam in the mud at high tide found its way to English. Our modern version has been truncated to happy as a clam, & has lost two salient bits, as the big idea of the idiom was that a clam in the mud at high tide could not be harvested & was therefore, happy.

In the 1630s, English speakers began using the term sardonic laughter to refer to laughter that wasn’t genuine and might seem a bit stretched. This comes from a Greek term that defined the twitchy, stretched-smile symptoms people displayed after eating a particular plant from Sardinia. The symptoms generally ended in death.

On a nearly lighter note, the idiom tickled to death comes from a myth regarding a method of torture said to have been used in China. Better than dying from eating a Sardinian plant, but still, not a great way to go.

Any giggles, titters or guffaws?


  1. Oh, this post has answered so many questions I've had since I was a kid. (And it's so humerus! :-)) I have always wanted to know how happy a clam is, and why it's the gold standard of happiness. Now I know...Thanks, Mr. Monger!

  2. Howdy Anne - I'm glad to have answered a question or two. Here's wishing you find yourself all summer long as happy as the proverbial clam.

  3. So *that's* where we got corny! I never quite understood the connection between farm products and bad jokes!