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Sardonic Laughter

Friday, March 20, 2009 - 08:59 AM

On the etymology of 'sardonic laughter', from Laughter: A Scientific Investigation by Robert Provine:

The term “sardonic laughter,” referring to the bitter, mocking laughter of derision, has a rich if dark etymology. The ancients who coined the term were referring to the humorless laughter and smiling produced by a deadly plant native to Sardinia, probably the herb known variously as march (cursed) crowfoot, buttercup, or wild parsley (Ranunculus sceleratus). The toxic effect of the plant was well known in ancient times, because the derivative expression had wide early use, as in The Odyssey, when Odysseus “smiled in his anger a very sardonic smile.” Writing in the second century AD, Pausanias noted of Sardinia, “The whole island if free of lethal drugs except one weed; the deadly herb looks like celery, but they say if you eat it you die of laughing. That is why Homer and the people of his time speak of something very unhealthy as a Sardonic laugh.” Although the details of this mysterious herb and its effects are lost in the fog of history, the term risus sardonicus, literally “laughter of Sardinia,” but now usually referring only to smiling, survives in modern medicine as a key symptom of tetanus (“lockjaw”) and strychnine poisoning. (In antiquity, I suspect that the herb produced only grimaced smiling, as in The Odyssey, with “laughter,” if any was ever present, the result of rhythmic gasping during seizures.)


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Comments [6]

David D.

Elizabeth Giddens is wher =e it is at!!

Apr. 01 2014 06:32 PM
Martin Rosenblatt

Wow . . . three people so moved by your NYT house article that we have googled you to this site. I am a native NYer but moved to Sydney Australia a few years ago and have been terribly homesick and nostalgic particularly for my days (in my 20's and 30's) in Brooklyn. I find myself trolling the web for pictures and stories of old NY, particularly Brooklyn which to me reeks the old NY vibe better than the other boroughs. I found myself transfixed by your article imagining the Tollner and the Supafly crowd padding the same boards. Man how cool is that.

May. 01 2009 05:37 AM
John Cavanaugh

I also enjoyed the story about the house in Brooklyn and I live in Omaha. I have also enjoyed the articles on laughter. My grandson born in December began laughing at about 30 days and is not even Greek.

Apr. 27 2009 05:16 PM
Jimmy Ellis

Hello Elizebeth,
I'm assuming that you are the Elizebeth who wrote today's (April 26, 2009) article in the times about the house in Brooklyn. I thouroughly enjoyed it. Thanks. You memtioned you might use the tunnel as a root cellar. I was thinking it might have been an icehouse.

Apr. 26 2009 03:01 PM
Vickie Galante

Isn't the Latin term for lockjaw or tetanus "rictus sardonicus," rather than "risis sardonicus?"

Mar. 29 2009 07:49 PM

Wow! I have always held an interest in classical history, and am amazed when a rediscovery like this is made.

Mar. 25 2009 08:15 PM

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