[dropcap1]W[/dropcap1]E HAVE USED the phrase so often that it is quite clichéd; and yet hardly any funny quip goes by without receiving a “Ha ha!” (Or several “Ha has” if you will.)
How many times have we really wondered where that expression came from, or why we use it? It was one of the seemingly trivial questions I often asked myself but never quite got around to finding a convincing answer. I still have not, to be frank, but in this article I intend to explain an extremely plausible reason.
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Does the expression — by which, naturally, I mean the written one — have its origins in the sound of common human laughter (the one that goes “Ha ha ha ha…,) or does it stem from something more obscure? I would vouch partly for both, but mostly for the latter. Besides the reason I do think is right, is lot more interesting
The various versions of “Ha ha!”
While “Ha ha!” may be the most recognisable onomatopoeia, there are several other versions that point to the same sound of (human) laughter. And many of these vary by less than the width of a hair.
Besides “Ha ha!” we have “Ah-ha ha!” or “Hah hah!” or “Ah hah!” or “Ha hah!” and so on. Besides this lot are words imitating a more muffled/unsure laughter, such as “He he!” or “Huh!” or even a laugh as quick as the quip itself, “Ha!”
The reason I mentioned these, it is worth knowing, is because they all have a pattern: more obviously, they are almost all doublets in syllable and word; and, understandably, all exclamations. But on the more inconspicuous side, these are all combinations with an h and an a.
The h is the easiest sound to produce from the vocal cord (although some find it rather tricky at certain placements) and the a is the commonest vowel by preference. (Not by spelling, mind you: that crown belongs to the vowel e.)
In other words, when one laughs — a natural laughter being both unexpected and unplanned — the simplest and most preferred syllable comes out in repetition. But, while this may well be why “Ha ha!” (we will just refer to all versions using this single term) is an onomatopoeia, could the real origins on paper be the result of something else entirely?
A bit about gardening
For any of us familiar with gardening (either because we have done it, or have read about it extensively) we will be familiar with the term ha-ha in a completely different light.
I do not quite remember where I first read it, but the earliest I remember it is from my first reading of Mansfield Park in school, back in grade 7. There is a beautiful paragraph that goes thus:
“Prohibited! nonsense! I certainly can get out that way, and I will. Mr. Rushworth will be here in a moment you know—we shall not be out of sight.”
“Or if we are, Miss Price will be so good as to tell him, that he will find us near that knoll, the grove of oak on the knoll.”
Fanny, feeling all this to be wrong, could not help making an effort to prevent it. “You will hurt yourself, Miss Bertram,” she cried, “you will certainly hurt yourself against those spikes—you will tear your gown—you will be in danger of slipping into the ha-ha. You had better not go.”
Her cousin was safe on the other side, while these words were spoken, and smiling with all the good-humour of success, she said, “Thank you, my dear Fanny, but I and my gown are alive and well, and so good bye.”
(from Mansfield Park by Jane Austin)
Searching for those lines and typing them from my copy of the novel was testing, but those lines just want to make me read it all over again. What a beautiful work!
Haha is a French term meaning ‘a sunken fence.’ Now typical European estate owners believed in having an unobstructed view of their large lands. But stray (and tended) cattle were a great problem. So, while on the one hand they had to stop the cattle — and they could use a fence or compound wall — on the other hand, they hated to see these structures spoil the beauty of the estate.
Ha-ha is a term in garden design that refers to a trench, one side of which is concealed from view, designed to allow an unobstructed view from a garden, pleasure ground, or park, while maintaining a physical barrier in one direction, usually to keep livestock out that are kept on an expansive estate or parcel.
As a solution to this problem gardeners often resorted to building dry moats with one perpendicular wall and one sloping wall so that the walls kept the cattle off the fields (they could not possibly cross it) and the ha-ha was hidden from sight when the land was viewed in-panorama.
Quebec and the Rapa Nui
My favourite tribes have always been the Rapa Nui of Easter Island (their birdman cult, in particular) and those clumsily large island heads still fascinate me, but what I found interesting to note was that the Rapa Nui word for mouth is haha. That is some food for thought!
In French-speaking Quebec is a place called Saint-Louis-du-Ha! Ha! and the origin of this weird name is interesting as well. The more general meaning of the French word haha happens to be ‘a path with an abrupt end,’ and many believe that Saint-Louis-du-Ha! Ha!’s Lake Témiscouata is the Ha-ha the name refers to.
(My pity goes to every noble citizen of Saint-Lou… who has to write that long name every time he posts a letter.)
So as we take a look at all these pieces of information, we find ourselves coming round in a circle. There is the ha-ha in a garden, so called because a ‘Ha!’ is the first word you would say should you slip into one of them (or, to be more considerate, if you found one of them blocking your path.) Alternative expressions etymologists suggest are ‘Ah hah!’ or ‘Hah hah!’ — both of which we have previously covered as alternatives to the more standard “Ha ha!”
The idea of circling around is simply that it is certainly possible that the ha-ha got its name from the “Ha ha!” for this reason, because the expression would naturally predate the gardening technique known earliest since around the 18th century, or even various French toponyms, known earliest since 1686.
However, since modern English (whose written words and spellings were only established with Johnson’s, A Dictionary of the English Language, in 1755) came much later, it would be better, technically speaking, to presume the establishment of the phrase “Ha ha!” at a point in time after the mid 1700s, which would mean garden ha-has were in existence well over 150 years by then.
However, the entire issue is far from settled and — apart from the word’s origin being not half as funny as what the word itself stands for — perhaps this is one piece of history with no definite proof, but several plausible conjectures and what we believe in will have to be a matter of opinion to some extent.
So what do you think? Leave a comment and let us know!
[notice type=”green”]Cover photo courtesy: Flickr/Swami Stream