Heh. This is a word that sounds like it sounds like it means, or anyway sounds like it means what it sounds like. If you know what I mean.
One fun thing about this word is that its advent is not the usual. Each of us may well know where we first saw or heard a word, but we probably don’t have any way of knowing just when it first saw the light of day on this planet. Usually a word creeps out from under a rock or comes whiffling through the woods; we have some record of when it first started getting around, and we may have a trail of uses, forms, and other lexical spoor that leads us to infer where it came from, but there is no proper birth certificate. Chortle is quite unlike that.
You may or may not remember when you first saw or heard chortle, but I have no idea where I did. I am sure it was not in its original context – the place it first knew the earth and the earth knew it – and I know that when I subsequently saw it in its original context I didn’t realize it was in its birthplace. It wasn’t until a bit later that I realized that, like the numerous opaque words peppered around it, chortle was invented by Lewis Carroll (in real life, Charles Lutwidge Dodgson) and first published in Through the Looking-Glass in the poem “Jabberwocky.” Here is the stanza in which it blazes into glory:
“And hast thou slain the Jabberwock?
Come to my arms, my beamish boy!
O frabjous day! Callooh! Callay!”
He chortled in his joy.
And, unlike some of the other words Carroll introduced in the poem, it caught on and took off. You don’t see uffish used much at all, nor manxome; although vorpal has a certain something, you will rarely hear it outside of the realms of role-playing gamers; but within mere years, chortle was being used as if it had been around for centuries, like whiffling (also used in the poem) had.
So what did Lewis Carroll confect this word from? The Oxford English Dictionary’s full etymology is just “Quite unconnected with churtle v.” (And what does churtle mean? “Chirp,” apparently.) But Carroll himself was good enough to give some indication. The origins of chortle, as it happens, are chuckle (which in turn first appeared around 1600 as chuck – meaning not ‘toss’ but ‘cluck’, imitative of sound – with a frequentative -le suffix) and snort (another imitative word, with us since the 1300s). So this is a portmanteau word, but not in the usual fashion, with a first half of one part and a second half of another. Rather, it has a graft from snort right in the middle of chuckle. Why is it not snuckle? Well, that’s a different sound, isn’t it? More like snickering than snorting. And of course it couldn’t be something like chuckort – we need that -le.
Most importantly, because it was made from two imitative words and is itself audibly imitative, it conveys its sense quite engagingly. And we even know its parentage and have its literary birth certificate: Through the Looking-Glass, and What Alice Found There, the sequel to Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, was published on December 27, 1871. O frabjous day! (Frabjous, by the way, comes from fair, fabulous, and joyous. It has not really caught on.)