Like a ha-ha

Robert Harris’s 1995 thriller Enigma, which fictionalises a group of code breakers in World War II, contains a playful nouning of ha-ha:

Jericho drew back the curtains to unveil another cold, clear morning. It was only his third day in the Commercial Guesthouse but already the view had acquired a weary familiarity. First came the long and narrow garden (concrete yard with washing line, vegetable patch, bomb shelter) which petered out after seventy yards into a wilderness of weeds and a tumbledown, rotted fence. Then there was a drop he couldn’t see, like a ha-ha, and then a broad expanse of railway lines, a dozen or more…

Is this the influence of Nelson Muntz, or are we to ‘hear’ the laugh some other way?


22 Responses to Like a ha-ha

  1. Kory Stamper says:

    I wonder if this is the “ha-ha” I occasionally hear out in the American West to refer to a ditch? We had a family friend who used to tell us to “watch the ha-ha” when we took her horses and mules out for a walk.

  2. Stan says:

    Nissemus, Kory: Oh, that makes sense. I hadn’t come across it before, and am slightly disappointed my initial interpretation was amiss. The joke is on me. *replays Nelson Muntz video*

  3. Martha says:

    Yep, I was gonna suggest that a “ha-ha” is a ditch, sort of like an inverted “thank-you-ma’am.” :-)

  4. John Cowan says:

    Here’s the OED2 entry (1898):

    ha-ha, n.2

    Pronunciation: ( /ˈhɑːhɑː/ , formerly also /hɑːˈhɑː/ )

    Forms: Also haha, ha! ha!, ha-hah (17 ah, ah), 17–18 haw-haw.

    Etymology: < French haha (17th cent. in Hatzfeld & Darmesteter) ‘an obstacle interrupting one’s way sharply and disagreeably, a ditch behind an opening in a wall at the bottom of an alley or walk’; according to French etymologists, < ha! exclamation of surprise.

    a. A boundary to a garden, pleasure-ground, or park, of such a kind as not to interrupt the view from within, and not to be seen till closely approached; consisting of a trench, the inner side of which is perpendicular and faced with stone, the outer sloping and turfed; a sunk fence.

    1712 J. James tr. A.-J. Dézallier d’Argenville heory & Pract. Gardening 28 The End of this Terrass is terminated Ah, Ah, with a dry Ditch at the Foot of it.

    1712 J. James tr. A.-J. Dézallier d’Argenville Theory & Pract. Gardening 77 Thorough-Views, call’d Ah, Ah,..are the very Level of the Walks, with a large and deep Ditch at the Foot.., which surprizes..and makes one cry, Ah! Ah! from whence it takes its Name.

    1724 in Amherst Gardening (1895) 234 The walks are terminated by Ha-hah’s, over which you see [etc.].

    1749 Lady Luxborough Let. 4 June in Lett. to W. Shenstone (1775) 97 The Ha! Ha! is digging.

    1803 H. Repton Observ. Landscape Gardening vi. 86 The sunk fence, or ha! ha! in some places, answers the purpose.

    1852 R. S. Surtees Mr. Sponge’s Sporting Tour x. liii. 300 [The hound] ran a black cart-colt, and made him leap the haw-haw.

    1880 Q. Rev. Apr. 336 The constant use of Ha~has (or sunk-fences).

    b. transf. and fig.

    1773 W. Mason Heroick Epist. Sir W. Chambers, Leap each ha-ha of truth and common sense.

    1858 H. Miller Rambles Geologist in Wks. (1869) 303 These ravines..are ha-has of Nature’s digging.

    c. attrib., as ha-ha ditch, ha-ha fence, ha-ha wall.

    1748 Defoe’s Tour Great Brit. (ed. 4) I. 336 Throwing down the Walls of the Garden, and making, instead of them, the newly introduced Haw-haw Walls.

    1774 T. Hutchinson Diary 17 Sept., A ha-ha fence at the bottom of the garden.

    1849 Ann. Reg. 106 The Ha-ha ditch in Kensington Gardens.

  5. Jen says:

    I only knew this word from a joke made in the footnotes of one of Terry Pratchett’s Discworld books. In it, an estate has a ‘ho-ho’, which the footnote explains is ‘like a ha-ha, but deeper’.

  6. Stan says:

    It’s beginning to look as though I was the last person not to know this sense of ha-ha. I should have looked it up, of course – its very incongruity in Harris’s prose should have prompted that. But I was too taken by the (mis)reading. At least its origin, per the OED, appears to derive from the laugh-sound.

    • Kory Stamper says:

      I think our entry agrees: imitative, possibly introduced into English through French. But I like the idea that a covered ditch is named after the sound others make while watching you fall into one. Speaking as a person who’s fallen afoul of a ha-ha a few times in my illustrious career as a klutz. :-)

  7. JJM says:

    Here in Canada, we have the town of St-Louis-du-Ha! Ha!

    As the town website notes, according to the Commission de Toponymie du Québec, “Le « haha » en français, est un archaïsme qui identifie une voie sans issue, un cul-de-sac, une impasse, un obstacle inattendu.”

  8. bevrowe says:

    It’s not really a ditch, which surely has two sides. A haha has only one side. It is more like a dropped wall. You see them at very many National trust houses

    • Millymelon says:

      Some hahas have two internal perpendicular walls – most of the ones I’ve seen have. It depends on the terrain. Sometimes if the country house sits on a slope up to its front the haha can come off looking like a terrace. If the ground is flat then it needs to be dug down on both sides.

      To me, a ditch is different from a haha in that it doesn’t have masonry, or the intention of being an invisible fence, but is more like a trench.

  9. Spank The Monkey says:

    I think the first place I ever came across it was one of Tom Sharpe’s early South African books – Riotous Assembly, maybe? – where one of the characters has to spend some time trapped in a ditch for farce-creating purposes.

  10. Stan says:

    JJM: What a great town name. I’m glad they kept the exclamation marks.

    Bev: I suppose you could say it’s a special kind of ditch, but “dropped wall” seems a good way of putting it.

    Spank: Ha-ha’s all round, then. Your memory served you well.

  11. ALiCe__M says:

    I’ve been familiar with ah-ah for a long time, and thought it was a very common word. This type of ignorance (not knowing which word is considered common and which is not+not knowing some vocab in a foreign language) is much more of a hindrance than just not knowing the meaning of the word “ah-ah”. Schools and universities should address this.

    • elizdanjou says:

      Gosh, I think the definition of “common word” is always going to be subjective. And the specific vocab anyone knows in—in his or her own language as well as in any particular foreign language—is always going to be a result of not just education but culture, life experience, interest, reading & viewing habits, etc. We learn words in so many ways, not just at school and university!

      The acquisition of vocabulary is a lifelong experience, and a joyful one at that. I often hear a word and have a flash back to the time and place I learned it. For example, this fun thread brings me back to the family vacation we took in the Gaspe region of Quebec when I was 11. On the long drive to the borrowed cottage, one of the ways I passed the time was reading from the guidebook about the towns we passed through. My favourite town name? St.-Louis-de-Ha!-Ha!, of course.

      I recall that the guidebook explained the name probably came from the French word for a geographic feature where the land fell away very steeply (it didn’t say anything as clear and simple as “a ditch” or I might have been able to picture it much better!). But it also said local lore often attributed the name to the beauty of the spot (presumably because the fallen-away land allowed one to see a great distance), which would lead those coming to it for the first time to exclaim “Ah! Ah!”

      I think I’m pretty well read—I’m a working editor and teacher of editing, I speak good French and some German, and I have studied Latin and Greek at the college level. But while playing a word game at a party some years back I discovered I was the only on in the room who didn’t know what a “zigurrat” was.

      Am never embarrassed not to have known a word already—I am to busy being pleased to have learned it. ;-p

  12. Stan says:

    Milly: Thanks for those details and observations. I’m learning a lot today!

    Alice: The term may be common enough, and just an odd gap in my general knowledge (I have plenty of these). I’m not well placed to assess this.

  13. alexmccrae1546 says:

    Hmm… I dare say, homophonically, a mini-Ha! Ha! could be taken as a we chortle, OR, the name of the endearing fictive female Longfellow Native American character from his classic 1855 poem, “The Song of Hiawatha”, Minnehaha.

    Curiously, her name has often been mistranslated into English as “laughing water”, but according to more authentic Dakota tribal linguistic sources, “Minnehaha” translates to “waterfall”, or “rapid water”. (I gleaned this info on a quick mini-Wiki-Wiki-search. Ha!)

    In light of this latest revelation that a “ha-ha” is, in fact, a fairy widely accepted term defining a ditch or trench, then it would follow that a very narrow and shallow ditch might well be deemed a ‘mini-ha-ha’. (Groan)

    I guess ‘the last laugh’ is on me. Ha! Ha!…. or maybe not?

  14. This is all reminding me of Tom Stoppard’s character Bernard’s musings on the exact pronunciation of ‘haha’:

    “Ha-hah, not ha-ha. If you were strolling down the garden and all of a sudden the ground gave way at your feet, you’re not going to go ‘ha-ha’, you’re going to jump back and go ‘ha-hah!’, or more probably, ‘Bloody ‘ell!’ […] In France, you know, ‘ha-ha’ is used to denote a strikingly ugly woman, a much more likely bet for something that keeps the cows off the lawn.”

  15. Stan says:

    Elizabeth: Very well said, and your attitude to unknown words is the right one, I think: no need for either embarrassment or triumphalism. I think a guidebook describing ha-has would benefit from a photo or diagram. My illustrated American Heritage Dictionary (which equates the term to sunk fence) didn’t offer one, so I turned to Google Images to see what range of structures people were labelling ha-has.

    Alex: Interesting note on Minnehaha. I wonder if the reduplicated ha is somehow indicative of the speed of the waterfall, analogous to Hawaiian wiki(wiki).

    Caoileann: Thanks for the Stoppard lines. It’s not clear what exactly he means by the difference between ha-hah and ha-ha – the first one’s second syllable more stressed or drawn out, maybe. Speaking of pronunciation, a lot of people seem to spell Nelson Muntz’s laugh “haw-haw”, but that doesn’t work for me.

  16. laumerritt says:

    I just came across this ha-ha today in this paragraph:

    “This pathway ran up hill, across another open space covered with white incrustation, and plunged into a canebrake again. Then suddenly it turned parallel with the edge of a steep-walled gap, which came without warning, like the ha-ha of an English park,—turned with an unexpected abruptness. I was still running with all my might, and I never saw this drop until I was flying headlong through the air.”
    — Excerpt From: H. G. Wells. “The Island of Doctor Moreau.”

    One more for your collection.

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