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  • On Laughing
  • Patrick Madden (bio)

My three-month-old daughter is just beginning to laugh. She is not ticklish; she is not mimicking us. As far as I can tell, she is just delighted by the world. She sees a funny face, sees her brother in a giant witch’s hat, sees me with my glasses on upside down, sees her mother dancing to the funky music of a commercial, and she laughs.

I have loved her since she was born—since before she was born, when she was only an idea—and yet I feel I haven’t known her until now. Her laughter has become a common ground for us, a mutual realization that the world is an interesting, silly place.

According to an Egyptian papyrus from the third century b.c., “When [God] burst out laughing there was light…When he burst out laughing the second time the waters were born; at the seventh burst of laughter the soul was born.” Man as the height of God’s laughter: that might explain a lot.

Max Beerbohm, in his essay on this theme, wonders that “of all the countless folk who have lived before our time on this planet not one is known in history or in legend as having died of laughter.” But Beerbohm is wrong. Bulwer-Lytton’s Tales of Miletus speak of Calchas, a soothsayer who was told by a beggar that he would never drink of the fruit of his vineyard. Moreover, the beggar promised that if the prophecy did not come true, he would be Calchas’s slave. Later, when the grapes were harvested and the wine made, Calchas celebrated by laughing so hard at the beggar’s folly that he died, before he took a sip.

The word laughter is like any other word: if you say it enough, it begins to sound strange and wondrous. Listen to the sound as it separates from meaning; feel your tongue jump away from your front teeth, the way you bite your bottom lip slightly—laf—the quick strike of the tongue against the teeth again—ter! If you say laughter fast enough and long enough it will make you laugh. [End Page 141]

Animals that laugh: hyenas, monkeys, the kookaburra, or laughing jackass, an Australian bird whose call is so similar to raucous laughter that early European explorers of that continent were tormented by it. There is the laughing frog (which is edible), the laughing bird (or green woodpecker), the laughing crow, the laughing thrush, the laughing dove (or African dove), the laughing goose (or white-fronted goose), the laughing gull, the laughing falcon, the laughing owl.

Democritus (460–357 b.c.), called the Laughing Philosopher, proposed that matter was not infinitely divisible, that there existed a basic unit of matter, the atom, which was indivisible. It turns out that atoms can be further broken down into protons, neutrons, and electrons, which in turn consist of quarks, which name comes from James Joyce’s novel Finnegans Wake, because Murray Gell-Mann, originator of quark theory, loved the line “Three quarks for Muster Mark!” This makes me laugh.

In English, laughter as dialogue is often portrayed as ha ha ha. Santa Claus’s laugh is ho ho ho. The Green Giant’s laugh is also ho ho ho. Children are said to laugh he he he. The laughter of connivers and old men is heh heh heh. In Spanish, laughter is ja ja ja, jo jo jo, ji ji ji, and je je je. The same holds true for laughs in Romanian, French, Japanese, and Chinese, and I’d be willing to bet it’s the same in most other languages too. Always a vowel sound introduced by an h, the sound closest to breathing, as if laughter were as basic as respiration.

Some synonyms for laughter: cackle, chuckle, chortle, giggle, guffaw, snicker, snigger, titter, twitter. These words make my children laugh.

Many things are laughable only later, after everything has turned out fine and we can reflect on our good fortune or our dumb luck. Such as my son’s many trips to the emergency room for foreign objects in his nose: raisins, rubber...


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pp. 141-144
Launched on MUSE
Open Access
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