Saturday, November 27, 2010

Laughing Stock

Ralph asked about the origin of “laughing stock,” an object of laughter, particularly when offered in ridicule or contempt.

The original meaning of stock [862] was a tree stump or a block of wood. By the early 14th century, it had come to mean a senseless or stupid person, probably by analogy to a chunk of wood that was lifeless, motionless, and devoid of sensation. Laughing stock shows up as a set phrase in 1533. Ludicrous blockhead would be equivalent.

What I found most interesting when I was checking the online Oxford English Dictionary was the sheer number of meanings filed under the headword stock. There must be over 70 of them, and they cover an incredible range of meanings over the centuries. I’ll share just a few.

  • an idol or sacred image
  • the source of a family line or descent
  • an obsolete instrument of punishment
  • a gun carriage
  • a fireplace ledge
  • a frame supporting a spinning-wheel
  • a perch for a bird
  • an alms box
  • a basin used for holy water
  • the block of wood from which a bell is hung
  • the handle of a pistol
  • a mouse trap
  • a swarm of bees
  • an article of clerical attire
  • the udder of a cow
  • a rabbit burrow
  • an endowment
  • reputation
  • farm animals
  • provisions for future use
  • goods on hand
  • liquid foundation for a soup
  • a company of actors who work at a particular theater
  • a standardized or conventional type

Incredible. It causes me to stand stock still.

Available from McFarland & Co.: Word Parts Dictionary, 2nd edition

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