How to Spell Exclamations of Laughter

By Mark Nichol

How does one spell the sound of an eruption of laughter? It depends on the species of mirth, and the list below offers suggestions based on such subtleties. Whether one seeks to indicate a character’s laughter in the manuscript of a novel or short story or to indicate actual or conjectural laughter in nonfiction, consider these guidelines.

The basic expression of laughter is ha, though this onomatopoeic word can also express derision, especially when followed by an exclamation point, so writers should take care to provide context to clarify whether the word indicates amusement or ridicule. The former is more likely to be expressed with ha-ha (also styled “ha ha” or haha, though, as with many reduplicative terms, hyphenation is recommended). Greater dedication to expressing amusement is demonstrated by ha-ha-ha and so forth, though eventually, with enough reduplication, derangement is implied.

Meanwhile, heh, or heh-heh, suggests pointedly mild amusement, or a suggestion of mischievous or smirking, sniggering, or lascivious amusement, so, again, context is helpful. He-he-he, or tee-hee (or tee-hee-hee) also imply mischief, though the implication is that the laughter is high pitched, and the humor is juvenile. Bwah-hah-hah, or mwah-hah-hah, is imitative of a comic book villain’s triumphant eruption of malicious laughter when overcoming the hero and is generally used facetiously to imply that one’s evil machinations have borne fruit.

Ho-ho-ho, the form of expression employed by Santa Claus to express Christmas cheer in popular culture, suggests a full-bodied mirth, while hoo-hoo is indicative of obnoxious delight at, for example, being found to be right about something or having caught someone in a lie or transgression.

Yuk-yuk-yuk (or, imitative of Curly of the Three Stooges, nyuk-nyuk-nyuk) suggests impish delight, though using the word yuks to refer to laughter suggests sarcasm or at best a comment on how something is not really that amusing.

Derived from the Internet-speak acronym for “laugh out loud,” lol (or LOL) is rarely used as an expression in dialogue or within a quotation, though it may be uttered in conjunction with derisive eye-rolling. (The variations lolz and lulz may express scorn as well.)

Many of these terms are ambiguous, so, as stated above, aid the reader with contextual clues to, for example, clarify whether the expression of humor is sincere or sarcastic.

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3 Responses to “How to Spell Exclamations of Laughter”

  • D.A.W.

    @ Bill: There was a children’s cartoon show about an African lion called “Lippy the Lion”, and his sidekick was a hyena named “Hardy-Har-Har”.
    Most of the big cartoon characters had sidekicks:
    Yogi Bear had Boo-Boo. Quickdraw McGraw had “Pancho” (a burro).
    Mr. Peabody had Sherman. “George of the Jungle” had his elephant “Shep”. Rocky the Flying Squirrel had Bullwinkle J. Moose. Sometimes the sidekick of Bugs Bunny was Daffy Duck, but in one tale, Daffy Duck played “Duck Dodgers in the 24 1/2th Century”, and his sidekick was Porky Pig. Fred Flintstone had Barney Rubble.

  • D.A.W.

    How to Spell Exclamations of Laughter?
    Maybe in an old-fashioned style?
    President Roosevelt speaking from the podium:
    “As my wife Eleanor told me to say this morning (laughter!) …”
    President Kennedy speaking from the podium: “As the French said, I am the man who accompanied Mrs. Kennedy to Paris (laughter!) …”
    Jacqueline and John Kennedy had made their first trip to France (of his presidency), and the French people had “fallen in love” with Mrs. Kennedy, and her style. They raved over her, but they did not pay too much attention to Mr. Kennedy.

  • Bill

    I’d always thought that lol was for “laughing out loud,” which makes more sense than “laugh out loud,” a command form. Not that I care, because in either case I think less of anyone who uses it and I’ve heard that the young are going back to using “ha.”
    No “har har hardy har har”? I guess Jackie Gleason’s time is done.

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