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I've come through the expression "to be a laughing stock" to talk about a person who has done something stupid and who people laugh at because of that, and I've started to wonder about it.

First of all, why do we say laughing using a gerund when this is normally used in active meaning, in the sense of someone/something which creates an effect (e.g. an interesting book, a cutting remark, a boring person, etc)? It would make more sense to say laughed, as the past participle is frequently used in passive mode, thus underlining that we are the object of other people's laughter.

Secondly, I've gone through the various meanings of the term "stock" (as in finance, animal raising, supply of things, food, punishment and other areas), but the only expression which seems to be partially relevant here is "stock" being used to indicate the degree to which someone is respected or liked by others, according to OED. However, the term in this meaning is indicated as uncountable.

Does anybody know what "stock" stands for and what the origin of the expression is? And let's not forget about the grammatical side to the question, please...

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This is what I've just found on "The Phrase Finder". (The expression) refers to the meaning of stock as 'something solid that things can be fixed to', i.e. a butt or stump. So, 'laughing-stock' is just the same as 'the butt of the joke'. This however leaves my grammatical question open... –  Paola Apr 13 '12 at 17:33
I had thought that this "stock" was related to "stocks" used for punishment, as Jim contends. The site you refer to casts doubt on that theory, though. (Here's the link: phrases.org.uk/meanings/laughing-stock.html) –  Simon Apr 13 '12 at 17:37
To add: I searched and couldn't find a source for the "something solid that things can be fixed to" definition, but it seems to make sense. –  Simon Apr 13 '12 at 17:39
And, in fact, the punishment stocks are something solid that things [people] can be fixed to. –  Jim Apr 13 '12 at 17:50
This page contends that the phrase comes from an archaic meaning of the word stock: "something or someone treated as the object of an action, more or less habitually." –  Graham Snyder Apr 13 '12 at 22:06
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6 Answers 6

up vote 6 down vote accepted

Stocks were a form of public humiliation used as a form of punishment a few hundred years ago.

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Thank you; this would mean that we indicate the tool to talk about the effect of its use. However, this interpretation is in contrast with the one I copied in my comment above. Could they be both correct? –  Paola Apr 13 '12 at 17:39
See also: "The stock in question isn't that though. It refers to the meaning of stock as 'something solid that things can be fixed to', that is, a butt or stump. So, 'laughing-stock' is just the same as 'the butt of the joke'." phrases.org.uk/meanings/laughing-stock.html –  Kris Jun 7 at 12:13
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I'll use the "something solid that things can be fixed to" definition of stock, which Merriam-Webster comes close to agreement with.

1 b archaic : a log or block of wood

In "laughing stock", laughs are the thing which are attached to the stock. "Laughing" in this context isn't the gerund; it's the present participle being used as a noun modifier.

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Somehow I'm not convinced by the "log with attached laughs" theory. –  kotekzot Apr 13 '12 at 18:06
Agreed. I'd be much more confident if I could find a more concrete example of "____ing stock" from which the metaphor would arise. Nearest I've come is "whipping post" or "hitching post". –  Simon Apr 13 '12 at 18:51
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To answer the first part of your question, laughing is the obvious choice. When you add the -ing suffix to form an adjective, you denote that the sentiment present in the word is transmitted to other people. An interesting book is a book that arouses interest in people. Therefore a laughing-stock makes people laugh at someone.

As for the second part of your question, according to Etymonline, this term was formed by analogy with whipping-stock. See the full entry here.

EDIT upon comment: I'm going to use the examples you give in your question.

An interesting book: a book that arouses the sentiment of interest to the readers.

A cutting remark: a remark that causes the feeling of pain to the receiver.

A boring person: a person that causes the feeling of boredom to other people.

All of the above adjectives could not have the meaning they carry with the -ed ending. Neither could laughed for the same reason. We have, however, interested readers who have the feeling of interest which a book arouses. We also have bored people who have the feeling of boredom that someone else causes (the analogous to cutting can't be used here as it is a different word). Someone who is a laughing-stock makes other people laugh at them. That's what the -ing ending shows.

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Sorry Irene, I don't understand what you mean by "you denote that the sentiment of the word is transmitted to other people". How does laughing do that, when it is an adjective? –  Matt Эллен Apr 13 '12 at 18:02
@MattЭллен: See the edit in my answer. Adjectives with the -ing ending like laughing cause other people to feel in a specific way, in this case amused. –  Irene Apr 13 '12 at 18:30
@Irene, I don't think this argument holds water. To reexamine your examples, an interesting book interests people, a cutting remark metaphorically cuts, and a boring person bores; by the same token, a laughing thing would laugh, which would mean to be amused, rather than to amuse. –  Graham Snyder Apr 13 '12 at 20:07
@Irene, I think I'd side with Graham's point of view; I'm thinking for example of Bowie's record "The Laughing Gnome" where it is clearly the Gnome who laughs, and he is not the object of other people's mirth –  Paola Apr 13 '12 at 20:53
A few days ago I attempted to answer a very similar question. The OP wanted to know why: "sleeping man" sounded acceptable but a "fishing man" sounded strange. english.stackexchange.com/a/116138/44619 I'm not sure it is a good explanation but it might help you understand why, "laughing stock" can and is used! –  Mari-Lou A Jun 10 '13 at 9:02
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"Stock" means "material." One could have soup "stock" for making soup. And a person's genetic background is one's "stock."

"Laughing stock" means "laughing material" or an object of laughter.

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OED says laughing here is a verbal noun, and stock is a verb - which isn't intuitive to me, but...

laughing-stock - an object of laughter; from laughing + stock (v. 2), where...

stock (v. 2) - to strike with the edge or point of a weapon. (cf stock-sword, rapier)

The etymology of this "stock" [F. estoc, It. stocco, prob. of Teut. origin] seems only distantly related to the OED main entry (n.1) [OE. stoc, OFris. stok tree-trunk, stump], where...

stock (n.1) (subentry:8 pl. An obsolete instrument of punishment, which itself derives from subentry:6 a post, stake (the reference being to the two side-posts of the apparatus).

So although it's tempting to see laughing-stock as alluding to the medieval public humiliation device, in fact it's probably more accurate to see it as a metaphorical reference along the lines of bursting someone's bubble of hypocrisy/pomposity with the sharp-pointed weapon of laughter (perhaps akin to poking fun at).

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If you, a native English speaker, say that the OED explanation is not intuitive to you, just imagine how difficult it is to me to consider "laughing" a verbal noun and "stock" a verb... The final interpretation, on the other hand, sounds interesting. –  Paola Apr 13 '12 at 22:35
@Paola: It may be that OED means the sense of each component word derives from its usage in those contexts. That's to say, laughing references for the act of laughing/laughter, and stock references by sticking, jabbing, poking fun at. –  FumbleFingers Apr 13 '12 at 22:45
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Shakespeare’s Merry Wives of Windsor:

Sir Hugh Evans.

[Aside to DOCTOR CAIUS] Pray you let us not be laughing-stocks to other men's humours; I desire you in friendship, and I will one way or other make you amends.

[Aloud] I will knog your urinals about your knave's cockscomb for missing your meetings and appointments.

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