From giggle to guffaw

Posted: Jul 10, 2006 12:01 PM

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.

On to the upper rankings of hilarity. We're talking now of the belly laugh, a coinage dating from 1921, inadequately defined by Merriam-Webster as "a deep, hearty laugh." The Encarta dictionary is closer with "a deep and unrestrained laugh." In any event, the belly laugh's range is from "guffaw," defined as "to laugh in a loud or boisterous burst," to such second cousins as to "snort," "howl," "roar" and "whoop" with laughter.

Finally we come to a verb your fellow student had never met before. He found it in Rodale's Synonym Finder under to "laugh." It is "to cachinnate." Dear Readers! What a verb! It dates from 1824. "The spectators pretended not to notice when James cachinnated." Not one reader in a thousand will know what it means. Stand back! It means "to laugh loudly or immoderately."

The Risibility Index embraces adjectives as well as nouns. These range upwardly from merely "humorous" and "amusing" (tied at 4.7) to "side-splitting" (9.5). The generic form is "funny," in the sense of "affording mirth and laughter." On down the line are "witty," "jocular" and "jocose." At the high end are "hilarious" (boisterous, high-spirited) and "riotous" (excessively exuberant). The genre tops out with "hysterical."

Getting back, finally, to "cachet." Did you know that "cacography" is poor spelling? A "cachou" is a breath-sweetening pill. To be "cack-handed" is to be clumsy. Never let a writer alone with a dictionary.

(Readers are invited to send dated citations of usage to Mr. Kilpatrick in care of this newspaper. His e-mail address is