I have a CD from the mid-1990s of the Tufts Beelzebubs, the all-male a cappella group from Tufts University (where I went to grad school); it has a number of excellent renditions of popular songs (one of my favourites is Pink Floyd’s “Hey You”). Among those songs is Paul Simon’s “Late in the Evening.”

If you’re familiar with that song, you’ll remember the line “There was music coming from the room next door, And my mother laughed the way some ladies do.” Well, as it happens, I’ve always had a sort of idea of what that laugh might be like – a sort of pleasant closed-mouth chuckle. Other people have other ideas; Paul Simon didn’t imitate it, so it’s open to imagination. Well, guess what: one of the members of the Beelzebubs did imitate his idea of it in the recording. The sound that follows that line, in their version, is no melodius chuckle or titter. No, he cachinnates.

Cachinnates! I mean, how cack-handed! Like some cartoon witch! Most unpleasant; a fly in the ointment of an otherwise good rendition. Such cacklin’ ain’t my idea of a good performance.

From context, you probably have an idea (if you didn’t before) of what cachinnate means. You also may have a sense of how it’s pronounced (like “cack innate”). You may nonetheless have some questions about this funny-looking word.

First of all, there is no established link to cackle, though both likely have origins in imitating what they name, and some people believe there is a link between them. But lest I mislead you, cachinnate does not mean “cackle” exactly; it means “laugh loudly or immoderately” – in other words, the word’s tinny taste conveys accurately the unpleasantness of its objectionable object.

Secondly, it’s from Latin, if you weren’t sure – the ch may have led you to suspect Greek, but the Latinate ate suffix is gotten honestly, so to speak. So why the ch for /k/? Well, Latin didn’t have a k – it represented the sound with c. But later on the c came to be an affricate before /e/ and /i/, and so in order to represent /k/ an h was written after the c, which is just as they do it in Italian now.

The result, to English eyes, is of course a bit odd, though not necessarily risible. While the sound of the word echoes cackle and crack, the sight of it may bring to mind Cochin China (an old colonial name for southern Viet Nam) or perhaps not by the hair of my chinny-chin-chin (a phrase that may be accompanied with cachinnation, but that is of course followed by huffing and puffing and, ideally, blowing the house down). And of course both sight and sound have a taste of tinny, as mentioned, the sight doubly so with the two tin cans c and c.

But although the cachinnation in the Bubs’ recording of “Late in the Evening” jars me, I suppose I ought not to be too hard on them. Cachinnation is at least a sign of a sense of humour. I will always prefer someone with an innate cache of cachinnation over an agelast.

Thanks to Elaine Phillips for suggesting cachinnation.

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