Laughing Stock – Usage, Meaning and Origin

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Danielle McLeod

Danielle McLeod is a highly qualified secondary English Language Arts Instructor who brings a diverse educational background to her classroom. With degrees in science, English, and literacy, she has worked to create cross-curricular materials to bridge learning gaps and help students focus on effective writing and speech techniques. Currently working as a dual credit technical writing instructor at a Career and Technical Education Center, her curriculum development surrounds student focus on effective communication for future career choices.

Whether you spell it laughing stock or laughing-stock, this analogous term is influenced by a few hundred years worth of influential phrases in regard to a person who is viewed with contempt.

The history behind the term and its widespread use in literature are interesting. So, let’s explore the etymology behind the idiom laughing stock, its meaning, and how you can use it in speech and writing to help provide detail to your own work.

What Does “Laughing Stock” Mean?

Laughing Stock Usage Meaning Origin

The term laughing stock, or laughing-stock, is an analogous term that provides a comparative link between the word and specific human behaviors.

A laughing stock is someone who is made sport of and is subjected to mockery, ridicule or humiliation. The term is used due to the behaviors, claims or actions of the individual to which the term is being applied. Sometimes, the laughing stock is someone who is a serious or respected person and is not used to such treatment.

Sentence Examples Using Laughing Stock

  • Social media has turned a large array of people into a laughing stock whenever they are caught on video attempting day-to-day events.
  • The newscaster made the broadcasting giant a laughing stock due to his on-air vitriol behaviors towards anyone who dared to disagree with him.
  • If you sell the idea that this data is possible fraud, you could face being a laughing stock to your supporters if you are proven wrong.

Is Laughing Stock Hyphenated?

Laughing Stock Usage Meaning Origin 1

The term laughing stock is sometimes seen with a hyphen, as in laughing-stock, but the Oxford English Dictionary prefers the unhyphenated, two-word form. It is also spelled as laughing stock in the Cambridge Dictionary and Collins Dictionary, two much more respected dictionaries compared to those pulled up by an initial internet search. 

The one-word form, laughingstock, is also occasionally seen due to its 16th-century influences but is considered an incorrect spelling despite being understood.

Therefore, feel free to use laughing stock or laughing-stock, but the single-word form is rare and generally frowned upon. 

A Laughing Stock Origins

The modern term laughing stock is derived from the use of the Old English word stock, which was first used in the 9th century. It originally referred to a tree trunk due to its German etymology, but it also became analogous with a person being treated as an object of some sort of action.

Laughing Stock Ngram
Laughing stock usage trend.

Laughingstock (one word) was formed as an analogy of the whipping-stock (or whipping post) of the early 16th century. The application of the word stock in such a manner quickly became adapted into other uses, such as jesting stock (from the 1530s) and gaping stock and loathing stock (from the 1620s) to mean a person or thing regarded with wonder or contempt respectfully.

One of the first documented uses of laughing stock was in 1533 in more than one publication. In Sir Philip Sidney’s work, An apologie for poetrie: “Poetry … is fallen to be the laughing stocke of children.”

It is again seen used in John Frith’s writings (1503-1533), a Reformation priest, when he states, “Albeit… I be reputed a laughing stock in this world.”

Shakespeare also used the term as seen in his play from 1602, The Merry Wives of Windsor: “Pray you let us not be laughing-stocks to other men’s humors; I desire you in friendship, and I will one way or other make you amends.”

Let’s Review

To be a laughing stock is to be an object of ridicule and contempt. The word is analogous with being a “whipping post” for humor and originates from the whipping post of the 16th century. The use of the word stock in relation to a person’s treatment has been around for centuries and can be seen in similar words such as jesting stock and gaping stock.

You can spell the term with a hyphenation to indicate the relationship between the two words, but combining the two words together to form a compound word is frowned upon, even though that was the original way to spell it.

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