A New York Times report about a spoof of the disjointed television speech that Muammar Qaddafi made to the Libyan people as protests against his regime were gathering steam notes that one viewer signaled his approval of the YouTube clip by "sign[ing] off with the international cyber-laugh, 'Hahaha'" (Isabel Kershner, "Arab World Embraces Israeli's YouTube Spoof of Qaddafi Rant," Feb. 27, 2011, nytimes.com). "Cyber-laugh" may be new, but "haha" is older than English itself.
The term cyber-laugh describes both an online joke and the increasingly-common written representation of laughter by haha or hahaha, or their more sinister variants bwahahaha and mwahahaha, transcriptions of the crazed laugh-into-one’s-cape of vampires and other stereotypical villains.
Haha is different from the acronymic LOL, for ‘laughing out loud,’ long a staple of text and chat that occasionally makes it into spoken conversation. It’s not an abbreviation, but laughter itself, a bit of onomatopoeia—a word that stands for a sound—like tsk, tsk for the disapproving tongue click, or pow! and oof! for the comic-book punch thrown and received.
Cyber-laugh is a new term—an online search tracks it back to 2004 or 2005—so new it’s not defined in any dictionary. It’s not even in urbandictionary.com, though there is a Facebook group called “I hate when people use the term ‘bahahaha’ to cyber laugh.” But the representation of laughter by words like haha is about as old as English gets, and haha was a word long before English was a language.
Although cyber-laugh is not defined in any dictionary, entries for haha, bwahaha, and mwahaha can be found online in the Urban Dictionary.
According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the earliest written occurrence of haha in English appears in Aelfric’s Old English Grammar, written around the year 1000 CE. Aelfric writes, “Ha ha and he he mean laughter in Latin and in English” (the Old English looks like this: Ha ha and he he 3etacniað hlehter on leden and on englisc).
Aelfric was right about the Latin: the comic playwrights Plautus and Terence used hahahe and its variants in their work back in the third and second centuries BCE, long before Julius Caesar crossed the Channel and made Britannia a Roman colony. It’s likely that Plautus and Terence didn’t invent hahahe, they just used it because it was a common expression and they knew their audiences would get it. Aelfric didn’t invent the English haha, either. The word must have been common enough in the spoken English of Aelfric’s day for him to include it in his thousand-year-old book about how English worked. But unlike today’s wits, Aelfric didn’t call ha ha a “parchment laugh” or even an “analog-laugh” in his grammar, perhaps because parchment isn’t recorded in English until 1325, and analogue wouldn’t enter English until the early 1800s. And he didn’t distinguish between “funny haha” and “funny peculiar,” because haha meant both, and because peculiar wouldn’t appear in English till the fifteenth century.
Thomas De Quincy once sniffed that Old English had a vocabulary of only 800 words, most of them having to do with war. But De Quincey was wrong. There were 50,000 or 60,000 Old English words, not 800, and although a few of those words were indeed warlike, most of them weren’t, and more than a handful had to do with laughing, something De Quincey seems to have missed altogether.
The laugh words include the noun hleahtor (its spelling representing an earlier pronunciation of Modern English laughter), which can mean both ‘laughing with’ and ‘laughing at, derision.’ Old English also gives us hleahterful, ‘full of derision, scornful,’ hleahterlic, ‘laughable, ridiculous,’ hleahtorbære, ‘causing laughter,’ and hleahtrian, ‘to laugh at.’
Now that it’s made it to the New York Times front page, or at least to the online version of that front page, cyber-laugh is probably ready to be recognized by dictionaries. But I’d also like to put in a plug for my own favorite Old English laugh term, hleahtorsmiþ, which deserves to be revived as laughtersmith, a suitable moniker for the creators, past, present, and future, both of analog and of cyber laughs. Because while language is constantly adding new words and dropping others by the wayside, laughter can and should outlive words for war, and what is true for vintage clothes should be even more true for vintage words, everything old can be new again.
The definition of hleahtor-smiþ, or ‘laughter-smith,’ from Bosworth and Toller’s Anglo-Saxon Dictionary. One of the citations refers to the far-from-warlike “laughter-smiths’ hands” (hleahtorsmiþum handa), ‘the hands of those who wrought laughter.’ So much for the Anglo-Norman-named De Quincey’s derisive comment about pre-Conquest English. Hahaha. Or if you prefer, cyberlaugh-cyberlaugh.