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Ha-ha

Pronounced /ˈhɑːhɑː/Help with pronunciation

You can still often see ha-has in the gardens of British stately homes. They usually consist of a sunken wall with its top at garden ground level, bounded with a ditch on the outer side.

A ha-ha
The ha-ha at Montacute House, Somerset

This stops cattle or sheep getting into the gardens without interrupting the view from the house. An older — more usefully descriptive — name was sunken fence. The class-related implication of this boundary is obvious from this quotation:

Two marquees had been erected for these two banquets: that for the quality on the esoteric or garden side of a certain deep ha-ha; and that for the non-quality on the exoteric or paddock side of the same.

Barchester Towers, by Anthony Trollope, 1857.

So far as we can tell, the word was originally French. When it crossed the Channel into Britain, it was variously spelled at first, often as ah ah, and it seems certain that the idea of a surprise was intimately associated with it. If you stumbled across it in the dark you certainly wouldn’t think it at all funny.

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Copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–. All rights reserved.
Page created 8 Mar. 2003

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The English language is forever changing. New words appear; old ones fall out of use or alter their meanings. World Wide Words tries to record at least a part of this shifting wordscape by featuring new words, word histories, words in the news, and the curiosities of native English speech.

World Wide Words is copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–. All rights reserved.
This page URL: http://www.worldwidewords.org/weirdwords/ww-hah1.htm
Last modified: 8 March 2003.