Words: Guffaw – how and when?

what does guffaw look like?

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The word for this post is guffaw.  Why?  Because it sounded neat when I said it out loud, and because it felt like a challenge.  (Listen to the audio file at dictionary.com.)  A guffaw is one of those noises I can identify at an instinctual level, but I’m not sure how to describe one.  It’s almost a laugh crossed with a bellow that takes up more space and time than the world created for it. It creeps outside its allowed boundaries in a joyful or sarcastic way – almost like a bubble bursting into laughter, or is it outrage?

I find it hard to decide if a guffaw is that laugh gone out of control or a snort of derision that took on new dimensions. Maybe it’s both, but before I can use it with a character I feel like I need to define it.  Since the word has such a singular sense of presence all alone, I feel like it draws attention and takes up more space on the page when it’s used.

Charles wasn’t a very expressive man, so it took me utterly by surprise when he reacted to my story about the ship’s tragedy with a guffaw from the other side of the table.  I immediately questioned what had caused him to erupt in such an uncharacteristic way, taking a quick inventory of the other faces in the room.

Question is – do we like Charles at this point?  Is he a jerk for laughing about a tragedy?  Or is he more clever than you and I, finding something in my tale to be a sham and he’s going to expose me for a charlatan so that his guffaw is almost glee?  Does he have insider news so he’s responding to the fact that my story is all wrong, the tragedy was a rumor in bad taste, and the ship docked safely at port while the guests slugged back martinis in the state room?  Maybe his next step is to reassure me that nothing bad happened at all.
I can see each of these as a possibility, so I feel I need to set a precedent before allowing a character to let loose with a guffaw so that I don’t confuse a reader down the line by using it multiple ways.

Do you have any words that particularly perplex you?  What’s your take on guffaw?  Do you guffaw?  Can you record it for me?

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1 comment for “Words: Guffaw – how and when?

  1. October 31 at 5:00 am

    I always thought of a guffaw as a very loud and sudden laugh that hits the air with force. As if a laugh could be like thunder. It could be that someone was so caught off guard with something hilarious or it could be a laughter in derision of another. The nature of the guffaw is dependent on the one laughing. That’s how I’ve always seen it. So, other textual clues could signify to the reader what kind of a guffaw that Charles is issuing forth from his chest and lungs. OR maybe you as the narrator want to purposely keep it ambiguous – the nature of his guffaw because you don’t want the reader to fully know what Charles is capable of, keep him mysterious. OR maybe you are writing as a purposeful “unreliable narrator”. So many possibilities. So many different interpretations. Isn’t that what makes literature so much fun?