Historically Speaking

Making sense of it all!

Laughing Stock

Posted by Elyse Bruce on May 6, 2010

There are those who claim that William Shakespeare is responsible for the phrase “laughing stock” because it appeared in his play, The Merry Wives of Windsor, that was first performed some time between 1600 and 1601.  In Act 3, scene 1, Sir Hugh Evans says to Doctor Caius:

“Pray you let us not be laughing-stocks to other men’s humours; I desire you in friendship, and I will one way or other make you amends.”

As much as would like to credit Shakespeare for this phrase, alas, he cannot lay claim to it.  In the 1533 book An other boke against Rastel by John Frith, the following passage can be found:

“Albeit … I be reputed a laughing stock in this world.”

The origin of the phrase is linked with the medieval practice of putting people into stocks as a punishment for a variety of crimes.  Despite the discomfort this caused those who were in the stocks, what was worse was the torture and ridicule they suffered at the hands of their fellow villagers.

The laughing part of “laughing stock” is a given.  However, the word “stock”  first appeared in English in 862, adapted from the German word meaning tree trunk.  What’s more, at the time, the word stock meant “something or someone treated as the object of an action, more or less habitually.”

Just as a person who was publicly scorned was referred to as a pointing stock, and a person who was frequently whipped was a whipping stock, those who were frequently laughed at were known as laughing stocks.

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