Notes on language from Steve Martin

October 14, 2015

Yes, that Steve Martin. I just read Born Standing Up: A Comic’s Life, his engaging account of his early years as a stand-up comedian and gag writer for TV, and I’d like to share a few short passages that relate to language.

On one of his endless trips around America as an aspiring freelance comic, Martin began taping his shows with a cassette recorder ‘in case I ad-libbed something wonderful’. This led to his abandoning a routine in which he drank a couple of glasses of wine, because when listening to the tape later he could hear himself slurring. He never drank alcohol before or during a show again.

He also made another significant change based on reviewing the tapes:

Texas-born and California-raised, I realized I was dropping my “ings” – runnin’, walkin’, and talkin’ – and I worked like Eliza Doolittle to elevate my speech. It was a struggle; at first I thought I sounded pretentious and unnatural. But I did it, though now and then I slip back into my natural way of speakin’.

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Outbreaks of contagious laughter (and mewing)

May 10, 2014

Robert Provine’s book Laughter: A Scientific Investigation has a very interesting chapter on contagious laughter. This curious phenomenon has long been exploited in such items as laugh boxes and musical laugh records, as well as being central to laugh tracks (from Ancient Rome to modern TV) and churches of “holy laughter”.

Contagious laughter is, of course, also an everyday occurrence, spreading directly from person to person in normal interaction. But even this activity can become abnormal, when for instance instead of dying down it persists and spreads over a wide area, as happened in the Tanganyika laughter epidemic (though it wasn’t just laughter).

Provine writes:

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Like a ha-ha

December 19, 2013

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?

Laughing on the other side of your face

January 12, 2011

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.