Thursday, June 10, 2021

The Language Of Confusion: The Giggles

You know I’ve never looked at laughter related words before? Clearly I have to do something about that.
To laugh showed up in the late fourteenth century, though weirdly enough, it wasn’t a noun until the late seventeenth century. The word comes from the Old English hlaehhan, to laugh, which could also be spelled hlehhan and hlihhan. And just to make things confusing, that double H was pronounced like a hard ch that people started saying as an F even if they didn’t update the spelling. It’s from the Proto Germanic klakhjan, which, come on, now they’re throwing a K in there? And before that, the Proto Indo European kleg-, which is imitative—that means the word comes from what it sounds like doing. So I guess a laugh sounded like “kleg”.
Giggle showed up in the sixteenth century. No one knows where it came from. It’s thought to be another imitative word, although that sounds less like laughter than kleg- does. Similarly, titter showed up in the early seventeenth century, and again, probably imitative. Snicker showed up a little bit later than that, like in the 1690s as opposed to the 1670s. And again, thought to be imitative. These words seem to be unique to English for the most part, so I guess English isn’t entirely other languages stacked on top of each other in a trench coat.
Guffaw is even newer, showing up in the early eighteenth century (there was also gawf in the early sixteenth century). This one is actually derived from Scottish, although it’s again thought to be imitative. Weirdly, guff doesn’t seem to be related to that, having shown up in 1825 meaning a puff of air, although it is also imitative. Guff sounds like different things, I guess.
Cackle is actually pretty old, showing up in the thirteenth century, but back then it only meant the sound a hen made (and it was imitative!). It didn’t mean to laugh until 1712. But yeah, from the sound a hen makes. Then there’s chuckle, which showed up in the late sixteenth century meaning… to laugh loudly. It didn’t mean to laugh softly until the early nineteenth century! Chuckle is from the Middle English chukken, to make a clucking noise, and once again, that is imitative. It’s also not related to chuck at all, if you were wondering.
Tl;dr: laughter words are imitative. All of them, apparently.
Online Etymology Dictionary
University of Texas at Austin Linguistic Research Center
University of Texas at San Antonio’s page on Proto Indo European language
University of Texas at Arlington
Tony Jebson’s page on the Origins of Old English
Old English-English Dictionary


  1. Some of those root words have the sound of a cat throwing up a hairball.

  2. When we hear someone giggling, it means that person is in a happy frame of mind.

  3. I guess it makes sense that sound words develop from the sound they make.

  4. There's a video I saw on YouTube once about how various languages indicate the sounds animals make. They're imitative, but then they're filtered through the sounds the language makes, so the words in Japanese or Russian are vastly different than they are in English. These imitative words in English made me remember that video.

  5. From the sound of a hen to laughter. That's an interesting evolution!


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