Yuk It Up

They've been known to hang out together. Scads of 'em. In a barrel, no less. As a whole, they've been hailed as not just being pretty good medicine, but the best. There are those that produce them really fast, like every minute and, yet, others that couldn't buy one if their life depended on it. Some people will do all kinds of things--outlandish things--just for them. They can be utterly spontaneous. They can be canned. They can be directed at you or they can be on your side, doing it alongside you. What you don't want are people doing it in your face and you certainly don't want the word "stock" tacked on to the end of it when describing you. Although I've never witnessed it, some are known to do it all the way to their financial institutions. You can find a faction of people out there who subscribe to the theory that if you're the last to do it you'll actually do it best. And, get this, word has it that some might've even died doing it. Or at least busted a gut.

So, yeah, I'm talkin' laughs, laughing... laughter; whichever variation fits the bill. It's a human response we long ago learned to take for granted, no doubt because of its prevalence, but if you stop and really think about it, it's totally daft. A person slips on a banana peel or someone offers up a joke about three guys going into a bar and suddenly this lingering, guttural sound emanates from out of our mouths and everyone's okay with it? You just start roaring right then and there--often out in public where countless people observe this seemingly involuntary reaction--and no one bats an eye? And even crazier still, witnessing it will, oftentimes, provoke complete strangers to join in with their own cacophonous versions of this same act like some kind of socialized side-splitting chain reaction? We, as a society, have actually signed off on this? What a joke!

For the record, "laugh" is an old English word originating in the 14th century and is imitative, meaning it's meant to sound like what it describes. Yeah, that's right, it's one of those onomatopoeias (best of luck with that on your spelling test, kids)--those pretentious, vowel-heavy prima donna labels that only a linguist could love. Just check out the word on the printed page: "laugh". We're supposed to take that configuration and somehow pronounce it "laff"? Who's in charge here, "Smooth Operator" Sade? Or maybe Colonel Phlegm from Arkansas? Ya' know, the guy who smells like potpourri, while drinking champagne and snacking on hors d'oeuvres?... I digress. Sorry.

Anyway, from all that I can glean, laughter started when we were apes some 14 to 18 million years ago (that's before sitcoms, Gen Z). It wasn't laughter as we know it today, but more of a labored breathing sound coming from play which happened even before the emergence of actual language. Interestingly, researchers have discovered that 65 species of animals produce laughing sounds while playing and, yeah, if you tickle a rat it will laugh, which begs the question: what actually goes on in these scientific labs, anyway? Granted, none of the other creatures are telling each other jokes, instead using this response as a way of alerting others that they are, indeed, just playing and not actually fighting; that their intentions are good. We humans, on the other hand, will laugh just before we go in for the kill because, ya' know, we're such an evolved species.

Truth be told, laughter in humans really has developed to cover the whole spectrum from over-the-top slapstick to very nuanced shades of dry wit. Kind of like the Eskimos with their many words to describe snow, the English language has a whole gambit of monikers for laughter. We can go big time with "gut buster", "breakup", "belly laugh" or "guffaw" with 'horselaugh"cackle" and "crack up" not far behind. Take it down a notch, and you've got your "chuckle" and "chortle" and if you want to get snarky you can resort to a "jeer", "scoff" or "snicker". Or, feel free to get all dainty with "snigger" or "titter".

And finally, I'd be remiss if I didn't mention an episode cited in many references I looked up: It seems 3 students in a girls' boarding school in Tanzania suddenly started laughing hysterically for no apparent reason back in 1962. Soon after, 60% of the school population followed suit, the contagion lasting for over 2 weeks. Later, many attributed the cause to both harsh classroom conditions and unusually high performance expectations, the thought being that this was the students' reflex action of rebelling due to a feeling of powerlessness at not having the coping skills to manage the stress. Seems like a sensible justification. Now, Jimmy Fallon's excuse?... I don't know; you'd have to ask him.