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I was intrigued to the phrase, ‘the argument doesn’t pass even the laugh test’ in the following statement of Bruce Schneier, a security technologist on the debate about whether Edward J. Snowden who leaked NSA's surveillance programs is a whistle blower or criminal in the Opinion Page of June 11 New York Times (http://www.nytimes.com/roomfordebate/2013/06/11/in-nsa-leak-case-a-whistle-blower-or-a-criminal/before-prosecuting-snowden-investigate-the-government):

“Keeping things secret from the people is a very dangerous practice in a democracy, and the government is permitted to do so only under very specific circumstances. Reading the documents leaked so far, I don't see anything that needs to be kept secret. The argument that exposing these documents helps the terrorists doesn't even pass the laugh test; there's nothing here that changes anything any potential terrorist would do or not do. “

I wonder whether the phrase, “the argument doesn't even pass the laugh test” can be an idiomatic phrase, or just an ad-hoc expression, though I think it’s too early to count it as an idiom, or idiomatic expression in light of the relative recency of the word, ‘laugh test.’

According to Google Ngram, the word emerged only in circ 1980, although the incidences of use have been on a sharp rise. At present, none of Cambridge, Oxford, and Merriam-Webster English online dictionaries registers ‘laugh test.’

Can I say “Your idea (invention / rhetoric / logic) doesn’t even pass the laugh test” – I know it’s offensive - as a quip in conversation, and be understood by my people, or is it safer to stop short of using such a phrase?

As the disclaimer in advance, I would like to add that my question only regards the usage of the phrase in question, and has nothing to do with the pro and con of the political argument on the leak case.

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It's a new one on me - in any real-world context I'd simply understand it to be a very dismissive brush-off, and think no more about it. But since I'm here on ELU (and my computer), I tried Googling the Net for the meaning, then the origin. Drawn a blank on both. But Google Books suggests it was first used in legal circles in the mid 80s, so maybe they meant your case is so weak it's not even worth laughing out of court. Likely as not some people just use it because they heard it, without knowing exactly what it refers to (or they invent their own rationale, like me). –  FumbleFingers Jun 12 '13 at 1:33
@FumbleFingers (and Yoichi Oishi): It's also the straight face test - can you say it with a straight face, i.e. without laughing. Wikipedia agrees that it arose in legal circles, referring to an article in the ABA Journal, 1988, "The Giggle Test", and to a post at WordSpy which gives a meaning closer to yours. –  StoneyB Jun 12 '13 at 1:56
I think whether and when you may say it depends more on your tone of voice than on the phrase itself. It's a relatively gentle way of saying "That's a really stupid idea". –  StoneyB Jun 12 '13 at 2:00
@StoneyB, While I agree with the explanation of the meaning, I don't think this is a gentle expression. It suggests that the person making the claim (in this case, that these leaks aid terrorists) does not believe it himself and moreover thinks his audience is stupid and gullible. Of course tone means a lot with all insults, but I would describe Mr Schneier's statement—he has well-known views on security—as forecful pushback against the Authorized U.S. Government Version. –  Andrew Lazarus Jun 12 '13 at 2:22
Also, pass the smell test. –  snailboat Jun 12 '13 at 18:56
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3 Answers

Summarising and amplifying the comments thus far, the earliest usage I can find is a 1985 Supreme Court usage...

The Supreme Court said, “This doesn't pass the laugh test; not withstanding what the Ninth Circuit says, we are not going to require that a recipient receive notice of every subpoena that has been issued in the investigation.”

For several years after that, almost all instances in Google Books seem to be in legal contexts. Interestingly, the straight face test predates it by several decades (that link has one from 1956).

In practice it does effectively mean this is laughable. Given the origins are so clearly associated with legal circles, I prefer to see it as implying this would be laughed out of court (if it ever got that far). But as StoneyB says, you can also see it as so laughable you couldn't say it with a straight face.

Any strong dismissal of someone else's point is bound to be "offensive", but arguably this particular one introduces a touch of self-referential levity (from the point of view of third-party onlookers, not the person whose position is being so derisively "laughed off").

Anyway, over 3000 written instances of pass the laugh test show that it's not at all uncommon.

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To take your points one by one:

  • it is not an idiom (it doesn't mean something other than what it says

  • but it is a pattern (more technically a 'snowclone') or

doesn't pass the X test

with 'even' has the nuance "consider how it might help the terrorists...it doesn't at all; the suggestion could be laughable but is so so much unhelpful that it is not even laughable, it is just boringly wrong" (That is my interpretation of the words, not mu understand of the situation).

  • Yes, you could say " “Your idea (invention / rhetoric / logic) doesn’t even pass the laugh test” and that would be pretty dismissive, because the implication is that the idea is stupid.

  • 'laugh test' is a fairly new composition and not a set phrase or idiomatic at all.

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I think over 3000 written instances (plus half as many again for the effectively equivalent straight face test) must be enough to say it's a "set phrase". And since a non-native speaker would have no chance of understanding what a laugh test actually was (even with a pretty good dictionary), I think you'd have to say it's an "idiomatic usage" too. It's just relatively new, and probably not familiar to the majority of Anglophones. –  FumbleFingers Jun 12 '13 at 21:41
@FumbleFingers: 'relatively new' vs 'fairly new' I think those are pretty comparable. As to 'idiom', the meaning here -is- deducible from its constituents, literally it is a 'test' for 'laughs', a check was made to see if it caused laughs. The misunderstanding is cultural, but it is still not idiomatic. –  Mitch Jun 12 '13 at 22:32
If you can't pass a fitness test", that means you *don't have enough "fitness" to pass. If there was a "transparent, non-idiomatic" meaning to the usage under consideration it would surely mean you don't have/generate enough laughs (i.e. - you failed the entrance exam to join a group of stand-up comics, for example). Besides which, I still see no evidence that it's not a "lawyerly in-joke" deriving from laugh out of court. The exact meaning of "idiom" is fluid, so you don't have to call it an idiom if you don't want to - but it's certainly not "plain English". –  FumbleFingers Jun 12 '13 at 22:42
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I've heard this phrase often enough that I'd consider it an idiom (in that there is no real "laugh test"). I'd paraphrase it to mean, "It needs to at least seem reasonable," or, "It needs to at least sound plausible."

The context where I've usually heard this phrase is when a company is making sure they won't get into trouble during an audit or an inspection. For example, let's say a company has a policy that they pay employee travel expenses, but only for company business. Let's also say that the company is located in New York, and one of its employees has a sister who is getting married in Chicago. The employee wants to time an upcoming business trip to Chicago, so that it happens during the week before the wedding, in order to save money.

That employee might ask, "Is it okay if I time my trip so that I go the week before my sister's wedding?" Assuming the trip is valid company business, the boss might say something like:

Yes, just so long as it passes the laugh test.

which means, essentially:

Just so long as an auditor wouldn't look at your travel record and think something fishy had gone on.

In other words, an auditor wouldn't look at your travel record, and laugh when an accountant tried to assert that the employee was traveling on legitimate company business.

As for how widely-known the idiom is, I hear it often where I work, so I presumed it was fairly well-known, but it might just be a favored idiom in our local corporate culture. That's the odd thing about trying to figure out the commonality of idioms – once you start hearing one, it's easy to presume it's rather common. But all it takes is one worker to introduce what was originally a lesser-known idiom into a workplace. If other people like it when they hear it, they'll start using it, too. Pretty soon, it seems like a common idiom to everyone that works there.

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