James J. Kilpatrick

A letter comes to hand from Mrs. Patsy Allen of Chicago. Not long ago she wanted to be sure of the meaning of "cachet," so she turned to her dictionary. Her eye fell upon "cackle," and thereby hangs today's meditation.

To cackle is "to laugh, esp. in a harsh or sharp manner." Mrs. Allen's attention wandered. She abandoned "cachet" and began exploring the variant forms of "to laugh." Then she invited this inveterate logomachist "to rank laugh-generating verbs from 'giggle' to 'howl.'"

Who could refuse such a challenge? The task requires a Risibility Index, not only for verbs but also for adjectives. Today's judgments, expressed on a scale of one to 10, should be regarded as tentative, subject to reclassification upon reflection. Your refinements will be welcomed.

We begin with "chuckle," at 4.2. It means "to laugh inwardly or quietly." Its first cousin, made famous by Lewis Carroll in "The Jabberwocky," is "to chortle." At 5.8, it is defined as "to chuckle, esp., in satisfaction or exultation." (It was the Beamish Boy who "chortled in his joy." The Beamishes were a well-known Lancashire family in the 1860s.)

Moving along, we reach "to giggle," with an R.I. of 6.7. It means "to laugh with repeated short catches of the breath." Close above it is "to titter," at 7.1. It means "to laugh in a nervous, affected or partly suppressed manner." At 7.8 is "to snicker," i.e., "to laugh in a covert or partly suppressed manner." The variant spelling is "to snigger," dating from 1823. (We digress long enough to caution against the casual employment of "snigger." It suggests a mean curl of the lip, scarcely a laugh at all.)

This brings us back to "cackle," at 8.4, which differs from "snicker" and "snigger" chiefly in its note of triumphant achievement: With an exuberant cackle, an egg has been laid. Closely related, at 8.9 is "to crow," which is "to exult gloatingly, esp. over the distress of another." The creator of the Risibility Index is in doubt about the admission of "to crow." It remains provisionally on the list only because a crow usually is accompanied by a "hah," or even a "hah-hah!" If "to crow" is to laugh at all, it is certainly an ill-mannered laugh.

James J. Kilpatrick

James J. Kilpatrick has been reporter, editor, columnist, commentator, and briefly an adjunct professor of journalism.

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