Laughing on the other side of your face

This is a strange expression, often heard in the form: “You’ll be laughing on the other side of your face [when X happens]”. But what does it mean and where does it come from?

Its meaning is straightforward enough. To laugh on/out of the other/wrong side of your face/mouth is to experience a humbling reversal of fortune – to have your happiness or amusement change to sadness, annoyance, hurt, disappointment, etc. There is often an implication that the change is deserved.

The expression can be used in a threatening or vengeful way, e.g., “I’ll make you laugh on the other side of your face!”, which is similar to “I’ll wipe that smile off your face!” Jenny at Yahoo! Answers reports: “In Dublin, where I grew up, it meant you [were] going to get a good whack on the side of your gob!! lol”.

The image of a violent action knocking a cheeky smirk away – right across the face or entirely off it, Picasso-style – is exploited literally in cartoons, and is acknowledged in Graeme Donald’s Dictionary of Modern Phrase:

It might be that, since mocking laughter usually issues from one side of a twisted mouth, the expression implies a threat to twist the mouth to the other side by administering a blow.

But the laughter isn’t necessarily mocking, and the comeuppance is often non-violent. The phrase is commonly used in a situation where person A is simply pleased or confident about something, and person B finds A’s complacency inappropriate or inopportune. B believes that things will change and that A will not be amused for long. So B says something like, “You’ll soon be laughing on the other side of your face.”

The Cambridge Advanced Learner’s Dictionary says the phrase is “used to tell someone that although they are pleased now, they will not be pleased later when things do not happen as they expected or planned”; the OED offers a concise equivalent, that an other-side-of-the-face laugher is “discomfited after premature exultation”. Brief definitions at Brewer’s, Oxford, Merriam-Webster and Macmillan support these senses, as does the following entry at Random House:

to undergo a chastening reversal, as of glee or satisfaction that is premature; be ultimately chagrined, punished, etc.; cry: She’s proud of her promotion, but she’ll laugh out of the other side of her mouth when the work piles up.

It’s not uncommon in literary contexts, especially dialogue. You can see it used to various but related ends in Death of a Salesman, The King of Ragtime, The Epic of Latin America, Freaks and Follies of Fabledom, War Plays by Women, and The fall of Fort Sumter, or, Love and war in 1860–61 (“I’ll make the whole country laugh on the other side of their mouth”). Searching for variations in Google Books will turn up many more examples.

The second question – Where does it come from? – is unresolved, as far as I can tell. It’s quite an old idiom, dating back to the late 1700s at least. But its very familiarity obscures the bizarre conceit of this anatomical metaphor. Laughing on the other side of your face: what are we to make of this? Is it a reference to Janus? To the masks of comedy and tragedy? On the Yahoo! Answers page, Grannyjill, noting that people don’t just use the left or right side of their face when they laugh, wonders: “So what other side? The side next to the bones?”

My query on Twitter led to a few replies and ideas, but nothing definitive. Embedded in the phrase is an inversion of the fates, a foretelling of the fall that follows pride. Maybe the cartoons have it right, and it’s more directly literal, and rooted in violence. Anecdotally I’ve seen it associated with parental discipline several times. Pet theories, however (im)plausible or outlandish, would be welcome.

[image sources: Janus, comedy & tragedy masks]
Note: this post also appears on the Visual Thesaurus.

21 Responses to Laughing on the other side of your face

  1. I look forward to seeing what people come up with Stan. Me, I haven’t a clue about its origins

  2. I really enjoy your writtings and Thanks for the gret help,and contribution in the english language

  3. Stan says:

    Jams: It’s likely to remain obscure, I think, but I enjoyed musing on a few of the possibilities.

    Carlos: You’re welcome, and thank you for the kind words.

  4. wisewebwoman says:

    This phrase was used a lot by my mother: “I’ll have you laughing out the other side of your face” when one of my brothers was mocking another one usually followed by the phrase “So don’t make me!”

    I always privately enjoyed the visuals it presented. Not being such a huge fan of said brothers.

    I was continually disappointed at the non-actualization of her threats.

    XO
    WWW

  5. Stan says:

    WWW: The visuals are what I like about it most – it’s an instant live-action cartoon, albeit a hypothetical one. Maybe a lack of follow-through makes the phrase more effective, so long as it’s not overused, by retaining the threat of (unknown) action.

  6. Tim says:

    Happy new year, Stan. It’s been a while since I checked ye olde Sentence First. :)

    I believe I had heard it before, but wasn’t sure what it actually meant. As for its origin – perhaps indeed it shall remain a mystery.

    For me, a cartoonish representation of the metaphor also comes to mind; perhaps a drawing in portrait view, where the character’s mouth is indeed to the left or right, making laughing out the other side entirely possible.

    Or perhaps there is some morphing going on, where the face in question belongs to a door and the eyes, nose and mouth sink into the door and come out the other side. Sentient woodwork. ;)

  7. Stan says:

    Many happy returns, Tim! I hope it’s a great year for you. Your idea of sentient woodwork appeals to my weakness for pareidolia. If we make the door an entire wall, it would suggest that the OMG Wall is laughing on the other side of its face. (OMG!)

  8. Helen says:

    Stan,
    I really enjoyed this. As a child of the late fifties/early sixties this was, in my experience, just as you indicated – associated with parental discipline. It was a favourite threat of my mother – “I’ll have you laughing on the other side of you face”. In the hierarchy of disciplinary threats it was just below “I’ll match you”. I’ve never heard this used since so I don’t know if it was my mother’s own unique composition or simply indicative of less harsh discipline!

  9. Stan says:

    Helen: Thanks for sharing that – very interesting, the hierarchy of disciplinary threats. It’s got me wondering about “I’ll match you”: whether it’s rare, or maybe even unique to your mother, and also what exactly it means and where it came from. Something to investigate later! It also reminds me of the tendency in some people to reuse almost any keyword as part of a vague threat, e.g., “Can I go on the rollercoaster?” “Rollercoaster? I’ll rollercoaster you!” or “I’ll give you rollercoaster!”

  10. Nancy says:

    Stan – I am reading, “The Three Musketeers,” and saw in chapter one, the following, “It was not that the sight of the wretched pony did not excite numerous smiles on the countenances of passers-by; but as against the side of this pony rattled a sword of respectable length, and as over this sword gleamed an eye rather ferocious than haughty, these said passers-by repressed their hilarity, or, if hilarity prevailed over prudence, they endeavoured to laugh only on one side, like the masks of the ancients.”

    I looked up, “masks of the ancients,” but didn’t anything in reference to the above. Perhaps someone else can add something here, or you, yourself, Stan. Great site! Keep up the good work!

  11. Stan says:

    Thanks, Nancy. I like the line, and it’s not a book I’ve read. The classical masks of comedy and tragedy have been used since Ancient Greece, so maybe that’s what Dumas is referring to. If not, perhaps a reader can shine a light on this for us.

    • Nancy says:

      You are welcome, Stan. I had not read the book before either, but came across it on my son’s Samsung Tablet, and knew it would be worth reading. I, too, thought of the masks of comedy and tragedy, however I had a hunch the reference was to something similar, but not exactly the same. Sorry about the typo in my previous letter! My excuse will be, that I am using a laptop for the first few times, and am accustomed to using an ordinary computer set-up.

      Again, great site!

  12. Stan says:

    Don’t worry about the typo, Nancy. I don’t care about them unless I’m editing/proofreading or they introduce some uncertainty; neither applies here. :-)

  13. […] For readers unfamiliar with the idiom: eat one’s words means retract what one has said, take back a statement, admit an error. So it’s similar to eating humble pie (whose origins are surprisingly visceral), and worth comparing with laughing on the other side of your face. […]

  14. […] with laughing on the other side of your face […]

  15. Allan Dodds says:

    I’ve just published an autobiography of that title. My mother in Edinburgh used this expression frequently and it stuck with me as a metaphor for a rapid reversal of fortunes.

  16. jane crossen says:

    I’m thinking that maybe, as it can be construed as aggressive, the implication is that the person will be slapped across one side of the face and will, thus, only be laughing on the unslapped side of the face?

  17. helenmpeach says:

    I wonder if there is any link to “turning the other cheek”?

    • Stan Carey says:

      Helen: I don’t think there’s an etymological one; they just correspond somewhat in their imagery. ‘Turning the other cheek’ has biblical origins, I think.

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